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Fire destroys Devil's Gap cottages

Properties seized by band descending into disrepair -- or worse

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KENORA -- The seven cottages at Devil's Gap on Lake of the Woods didn't just burn earlier this year.

They burned right down to the rock, as if zapped off the landscape. Not a charred piece of wood remains; just scorched Precambrian granite and the blackened hulls of some metal appliances.

The seven were among 33 cottages Rat Portage First Nation took away from owners, nearly all of them Winnipeggers, five years ago. The fire is labeled "suspicious," and the Ontario Fire Marshall is investigating.

But one thing is certain: It wasn't an electrical fire. Electricity was cut off years ago after owners were forced out. The cottages have been vacant ever since. Some windows are reportedly broken and some doors kicked in. But the buildings are not being used.

Which raises the question: What was accomplished by the band taking possession of those cottages?

"If the band didn't want us there, you hoped it at least had some greater purpose for the property," said Kevin Edwards, the spokesman for the cottagers. Edwards said news of the fire was heartbreaking. "There's just great sadness, a sense of loss, a feeling of futility," he said.

These are, for the most part, not grandiose cottages. Some are just 400 to 800 square feet and nearly 100 years old. They are a mix of lakefront and backlot, along a heavily-trafficked boat route.

Viewed from the water -- the public isn't allowed on the site -- the surviving cottages appear in need of a paint job or re-staining. Yards are overgrown, with one turned into a field of poplar saplings. The docks are still in the water but there are no boats. There's a blue children's slide bleaching in the sun.

The band hasn't made a dime off the cottages since taking ownership. In fact, the First Nation has lost $500,000 the cottagers would have paid over five years at an agreed-upon lease rate of $3,000 per cottage per year. In addition, cottagers agreed to make a $222,000 back payment for a very suspect "arrears" claim: The band insisted cottagers pay the new lease price dating back several years.

A similar situation is brewing in Buffalo Point First Nation. Chief John Thunder wants cottagers to pay as much as $5,000 per year in rent, although the average is said to be nearer $2,500. That's up from a flat rate of $825 cottagers have been paying.

The Buffalo Point cottagers argue the new rent, determined by an appraiser, is too high because 65 per cent of it is education tax and the band doesn't pay for education. At least the Buffalo Point cottagers are protected by a master lease registered with Ottawa, a protection cottagers at Devil's Gap didn't have.

Edwards believes Devil's Gap cottagers were turfed simply because band leaders thought they could make more money off the properties themselves.

Chief Ken Skead denies that. He contends the old lease rate that averaged $1,500 per cottage per year was a ripoff, although it had been set by an independent appraiser based on property taxes in the area. It may have looked low, however, because it was assessed just as cottage prices started to soar. The lease began in 2002 and ran five years. The average lease rate of $3,000 that cottagers agreed to was to due to start in 2007, based on the new appraisal.

The challenge for Skead is to prove his decision to take over the cottages was a benefit to his First Nation. "We'll probably be doing the same thing (leasing) but in a different way," he said. However, Skead wouldn't reveal his plan until it's discussed with band membership. "We're working on something but it's not a done deal."

The band is going to have to spend considerable money first, however. The cottages operated under a grandfather clause with Ontario Hydro because of their age. Now the cottages have had their electricity disconnected for an extended period, they have lost that exemption and must be upgraded to current safety standards before Ontario Hydro will turn power on. "We're having a heck of a time with that," Skead conceded.

As well, said Edwards, the septic field will have collapsed by now and that will be another cost. Then there's all the upgrading needed to buildings that have been neglected for five years.

Cottagers don't expect to ever set foot in their summer homes again. "We've given up all hope," Edwards said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2012 A5

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