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The suburbanization of Falcon Lake

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Ah! Summer and the chance to escape to "the lake."

And it's been a fine lake for most of my years. The family built the cottage in the 1950s on the shores of Falcon Lake, and we've had four generations step through the doors. It's not much but it's enough. We are at the lake to experience the outdoors -- swimming, fishing, hiking, boating, canoeing, kayaking. We need a place to gather the family and to eat and sleep and stay warm and dry when it's cold or rainy.

Several years ago, the lake experience started to change with the construction of the first summer homes and the trend now appears to be irreversible. Older (and some newer) lakeshore cottages that are selling for $500,000 are being torn down and massive houses are constructed on the sites.

Construction of two-storey homes, two-storey garages and guest cottages is not uncommon on modestly sized lots. With the adjacent boathouses, decks, docks and boat-lift systems, there is little left of natural shoreline along many stretches of lakefront.

The suburbanization of Falcon Lake is well underway.

I don't fault the individuals constructing the vacation homes of their dreams -- unless they are deliberately ignoring building restrictions and rules and getting away with it due to lax enforcement.

I fault the provincial Parks and Natural Areas branch, which presumably controls parkland. Falcon Lake is in a provincial park, not in a municipality. It is not freehold land.

Four years ago, I contacted the director of Parks and Natural Areas (with a copy to the minister of conservation and water stewardship) to question the enforcement of rules stated in the Cottager's Handbook, which is still on the government web pages, though with a banner that states "Under Review." The handbook states "the maximum aggregate size (the 'footprint') of the vacation home and all accessory buildings on a lot including buildings on the adjacent Crown reserve, is 20 per cent of the total area of the lot up to a maximum of 3,000 square feet (278 square metres) on one level. The maximum development on all levels, including the basement, main floor and second storey of the main cottage, and all floors of any accessory buildings, is 6,000 square feet (557 square metres)."

I have no problem believing many of the new cottages and accessory buildings are in the range of 6,000 square feet. I find it very hard to believe the footprint of many of the new homes and their accessory buildings is 20 per cent or less of the lot.

Four years ago, I received a response that did not answer the question I asked, but which basically stated people are purchasing cottage sites for high dollars and to maximize their investment, they are constructing ever larger buildings. The director did not confirm or deny standards noted in the handbook were being enforced.

The use of natural lands for recreation is always a balancing act. How much development is appropriate before natural lands are no longer natural? Could it be when the shoreline of a lake like Falcon resembles a lake in the suburbs of Winnipeg?

As a lifelong summer resident of the Whiteshell, I believe it is a Manitoba treasure that should be treated as such. Areas such as Falcon Lake and West Hawk Lake have turned into desirable cottage country because of the natural beauty, the deep, clean water and the proximity to Winnipeg.

I sometimes think about what has been lost -- not only in terms of what Falcon Lake once was, but in terms of what "going to the lake" once was. It was about experiencing the outdoors -- the forest, the wind, the hot days spent in the water, the rain that drives down onto the lake, birdsong and wildlife. It wasn't about bringing all the amenities of the city to the lake. It was about leaving those things in the city and discovering a different world and a different pace.

I know there are cottagers like me out there. I am sure there are also casual visitors and campers in provincial parks who are observing the rapid changes in cottage areas.

If you feel the provincial Conservation and Water Stewardship division needs to give priority and assign resources to a review of its policies and procedures for cottage development in the Whiteshell, contact the director of Parks and Natural Areas and the minister.

In my opinion, Falcon Lake has already passed the tipping point toward suburbanization. Others are sure to follow.


Brenda Miller, a lifelong resident of Winnipeg whose parents built a cottage on the south shore of Falcon Lake in 1956, is an administrator and student adviser in geological sciences at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 A16

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