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Cottage Wars

The Globe and Mail – May 18, 2002

Canadians are opening their cottages this weekend, almost all of them shared with other family members, according to a new poll. And as PETER CHENEY reports, many of these arrangements don't lead to rest and relaxation, but to screams, schisms and the occasional lawsuit. Golden Pond, it ain't!

The infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud began over the ownership of a pair of razorback hogs. For brothers Gord and Jonathan Hunt, fraternal war began with what seemed a wonderful gift: The cottage where they had spent the happiest summers of their childhood.

It was on Gold Lake, north of Peterborough, Ont., part of the vast constellation of lakes and forests known to Ontarians as Cottage Country. Their father had bought it back in the 1950s as an escape for his growing family.

Architecturally, the cottage was no prize -- a Diefenbaker-era A-frame with a second floor so cramped you were forced to hunch over like Quasimodo -- but the location was perfect. The lake was wide and clear, bass and trout flashing in its depths.

For the Hunt brothers, the cottage was filled with memories of swimming, fishing, jumping off a high rock and building bonfires on the rocky point. "We loved it there," Gord says. "It was like we were the luckiest kids in Canada."

Gord and Jonathan were nearly inseparable as boys. "We were buddies," Gord says. "Of all the kids, I'd say we were the closest." But all of that came to an end when they inherited the cottage from their family.

On the Victoria Day weekend of 1992, Gord and Jonathan were together at Gold Lake, looking forward to outdoor living and brotherly love. It was not to be. By midsummer, the mood in the A-frame was decidedly ugly. By fall, they were calling in lawyers. One of their angry letters included the line, "I no longer consider you my brother."

For more than four years, the brothers went without speaking. Even now, a decade after the fact, their relationship is hobbled.

"We're still brothers," Gord says. "But it's nothing like it was."

Gord Hunt is 42, and owns a property-management company in Peterborough. His brother, who consulted a lawyer when contacted, asked that his name not be printed. He shall be referred to as Jonathan, a name that (as per his request) does not rhyme with his real one.

The cottage debacle is hard for either of them to talk about. "I'm telling you, it was war," Gord says. "It was me and my closest brother, wanting to kill each other. Until you live through it, you've got no idea how much it hurts."

The Hunt brothers are anything but unique. On this long weekend, as happens every year, countless dramas will begin that centre on the family cottage, that most revered of Canadian institutions, and one of the most conflict-prone. The reality of cottage life can be less like Walden Pond and more like the Jerry Springer show.

According to an Ipsos-Reid poll released this week, 97 per cent of the cottages in this country are shared with other family members -- and 11 per cent of those families admitted that it had caused "a family rift."

Studies show that 9 per cent of all Canadians now own recreational properties, an all-time high, and the demand has pushed prices to record levels. The average cottage on Nova Scotia's south shore, for example, rose in value to $93,000 from $67,800 over the past year. In Ontario's Muskoka region, some properties now sell for more than $5-million.

Reiner Jaakson, a University of Toronto professor who wrote a treatise titled Second Home Domestic Tourism, says the cottage has rapidly assumed a "deep, almost mystical meaning" to many Canadians: "Each spring when the summer cottage is aired out, the shutters removed and the place made ready for another season," he says, "there is a rush of memories from years past, together with the comfort and reassurance of a familiar routine."

Unfortunately, that familiar routine -- according to lawyers, arbitrators and real-estate agents who have been caught in the crossfire -- has come to include family showdowns that take every imaginable form, including dockside fistfights, sibling screaming matches, overturned barbecues, sabotaged canoes and costly courtroom battles.

"When it comes to the cottage, a lot of 55-year-olds revert to their childhood," says Peter Lillico, a Peterborough-based estate lawyer. "The fight over the cottage conjures up memories of who used to get the biggest piece of cake and who mom loved best."

Such conflicts have become more common in recent years. Once it was assumed that the ownership of a cottage would pass almost automatically to the eldest child. But that custom has changed, and many parents now give their cottages to all of the children, who must figure out what to do with it.

In the Ipsos-Reid poll, eight out of 10 cottage owners said they planned to pass it on to other family members. And one out of five agreed that this was going to cause problems.

On Lake Muskoka, one of the most famous and valuable cottage lakes in Canada, an island that belonged to a family for generations was recently carved up into separate plots, when siblings failed to agree on arrangements after the death of the family patriarch. At another Muskoka cottage, there is a row of refrigerators, each with a padlock on the door -- one for each of the hostile siblings who share the place.

"What happens has everything to do with the dynamics of a family," says Norman Pickell, a Goderich, Ont., lawyer who specializes in mediation and arbitration. "You go to a cottage because it's so peaceful. People have tremendous childhood memories of summer at the cottage. There is deep emotional involvement. That's why the fights can be so bitter."

Aron Pervin, owner of Pervin Family Business Advisors in Toronto, agrees that childhood memories are at the root of many cottage meltdowns. "Everyone has their own memory of the cottage," he says. "It's where you learn to swim, where you catch your first frog, where you stand on Grandma's Rock. People are trying to preserve a shrine to their childhood."

Even the most minor modification may be perceived as sacrilege. One family had a nasty feud after one member installed a dishwasher without consulting his siblings, whose childhood memories included washing the plates and putting them on a wooden rack. Two sisters ended up in a years-long battle when one of them surprised the other by installing indoor plumbing and demolishing the outhouse.

Joan Booth, a former president of the Muskoka Lakes Association, recalls countless battles, many between families, others between neighbours who fought over everything from septic systems to a boathouse that cast a shadow on the adjoining property. "I always tried to sort it out," she says. "I'd tell people, 'This is where you come to relax. Do you really want to fight?' "

But when Ms. Booth and her husband split up, her eldest daughter minced no words about how much the cottage meant to her. "She said, 'If you get rid of it, I'll never speak to you again,' " Ms. Booth recalls. "And I realized that she meant it."

Ms. Booth says she understood. "You're a Muskokan, or you're not a Muskokan," she says. "And if you are, you'll do anything to stay there."

Although the details vary from family to family, the themes of cottage conflict are repeated over and over. Gord and Jonathan's story was that timeless classic, "The Mismatched Roommates."

Amid all the complications and nuances, the brothers basically held two contrasting visions of the cottage and what it should be. For Gord, it was a bucolic getaway. For Jonathan, it was a beer commercial. Or at least that's how Gord sees it. His brother will say only, "If he told you that it was about me partying all the time, that's wrong."

No one who knew the brothers as young boys could have imagined the split. Gord and Jonathan grew up in Peterborough in a close-knit family of six children. Their father owned a janitorial company, while their mother stayed home to take care of the kids. Every summer, the children and their mother went to the cottage, and dad came up on weekends, just as in almost every other family they knew.

The cottage was a child's paradise. There were canoe regattas, and runs in the aluminum fishing boat to a nearby beach. As they got older, they pushed the limits by jumping off a cliff and swimming below the spillway of a nearby dam. "It was a great time," Gord says. "There were kids stuck in town, burning in the heat, and we were at the cottage, swimming and waterskiing. It was a good go."

Their father died when they were young, but their mother continued the tradition of summering at Gold Lake. When they became teenagers, Gord and Jonathan rode motorcycles together. Later, they both went to Sir Sanford Fleming College in their hometown. To pay their way, they both worked at a Peterborough bar named Jokers. They even dated sisters.

When their mother died in 1992, Gord was in his early 30s and Jonathan in his late 20s. Some of their siblings wanted to sell the cottage, which had appreciated sharply in value, but the two brothers wanted to keep it. Since no one else was interested, the brothers decided to have it appraised, then pay their siblings for their shares of its worth.

They also decided to draw up a legal agreement about the ownership, including a "shotgun clause," which would allow either of them to buy the other out. Gord now calls that agreement "the only smart thing we did. Without that, there would have been legal bills out the ying-yang."

The papers drawn up, the brothers prepared for their first summer, beginning with the Victoria Day weekend of 1992. Even then, the brothers began to realize that things had changed since they were boys. Before long, they were enjoying each other's company about as little as the Hatfields looked forward to seeing the McCoys.

"Basically," Gord says, "it sucked."

Gord and his wife had an infant daughter, and saw the cottage as a retreat where they could revel in the silence of the outdoors. Jonathan was a childless, successful executive whose driven style carried over into his free time. Jonathan would arrange to meet friends at the lake, stay out late, then pull up to the dock after midnight in his boat -- a 200-horsepower Black Max outboard, the water-going equivalent of a hopped-up Trans Am.

Gord fumed every time he heard the boat coming across the water. He also took issue with his brother's habit of going out to the point late at night with his portable stereo and building huge bonfires. "I didn't think the neighbours would appreciate it."

Worst of all, Gord says, he and his wife were never alone. "It's one thing to try and share a place with your brother," he says. "But you put wives and kids in there too, and all of a sudden you're in a slow cooker."

Gord tried to negotiate a schedule for alternating weekends, but Jonathan would have none of it. To him, owning a cottage meant being able to go when he wanted. "To me, it was like he wanted 100 per cent use for 50 per cent ownership," Gord says. "I thought he was being completely unreasonable."

As the tension grew, Gord and his wife found their relationship fraying under the pressure. "It was really bad," he says. "I thought I was going to lose my marriage."

He decided there was no choice but to invoke the shotgun clause. He sent his brother a letter informing him that he was buying him out for $100,000, which he considered fair market value. His brother informed him that he was buying him out instead, as the agreement allowed. "He gunned me," Gord says ruefully.

But Jonathan's takeover of the cottage did not end the dispute. Instead, it devolved into a series of nasty phone calls and letters, followed by four years of silence.

"My brother's a pretty successful guy," Gord says. "I guess you have to step on some people to do that. And I feel like he stepped on me too. I guess he'd have his point of view too, but let me tell you, I didn't feel good about it. The whole thing was vicious."

Lawyer and arbitrator Ron Miller has counseled countless families on how to sort out their differences over cottage properties. "It can be nasty," he says. "People have very strong feelings about their cottages."

Many conflicts are resolved by selling the cottage -- a solution that, unfortunately, throws the baby out with the bathwater. Other families have set up companies that own their cottages, then issued shares to family members that determine their usage. Others agree to revolving weekends. But it isn't simple to decide.

"There can be tremendous animosity," Mr. Miller says. He recalls one case where family members were in his office until 2 a.m., airing their grievances after trying to share their parents' cottage for a season. "There was crying," he says, "and there was shouting."

How many cottages are sold because families can't settle differences? "It's a lot more than you'd think," says Helen McNabb, a Royal LePage agent who specializes in Muskoka. "We deal with that all the time."

Even the final sale can be a minefield. Ms. McNabb remembers one property where a family member who disagreed with selling the cottage kept large dogs in it all the time so it couldn't be shown to prospective buyers.

The sad saga of one cottage is documented in Peters v. Peters, an April, 2000, judgment by the Ontario Superior Court. The Peters cottage, which was located on Ontario's Lake of the Woods, near the Manitoba border, was originally purchased in 1962. In 1986, the parents transferred the cottage to their three sons, Kent, Randall and Jeffrey, anticipating that they would "continue to enjoy the property."

As the judgment noted: "Such is not the case."

The brothers ended up in a long series of fights over scheduling time at the cottage, bill payments, the replacement of rugs and bug screens, and reupholstering the furniture.

Randall and Jeffrey wanted to sell the cottage. Kent sued them to block the sale, saying he was willing to draw up a sharing schedule to keep the cottage in the family. But the judge saw no possibility of working things out, and ordered the cottage sold.

Another cottage-related family schism is detailed in Leger v. Reimer, a 1999 lawsuit that pitted Norma Eileen Leger against her sister, Donna Reimer. Ms. Leger, who owned a summer cottage on Aylen Lake, had allowed her sister to park a trailer on the edge of her property on the condition that she remove it when asked.

Instead, Ms. Leger watched as her sister gradually turned the trailer into something of a compound, complete with its own hydro line. Within a year of the trailer's 1986 installation, Ms. Reimer had put on a concrete-block addition at the front. Two years later came an outhouse and a tin shed. In 1991, Ms. Reimer constructed "a large addition at the rear of the trailer, consisting of a large bedroom, two small bedrooms and a bathroom."

When her sister became concerned about the expansions, Ms. Reimer assured her that she would remove the structures whenever she was asked, pointing out that they had been built with screws so they could be dismantled. Then, in 1992, Ms. Reimer dug "a large hole" under the trailer that she and her husband used to store a boat.

In 1996, there was a falling-out between the sisters, and Ms. Leger ordered Ms. Reimer to remove her trailer and all its additions so she could sell the property. Ms. Reimer refused, arguing that she had been given permission to build her dwelling, and wouldn't leave unless she was compensated.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Leger claimed that her sister had made it impossible for her to enjoy her cottage or even to sell it. Her lawyer outlined her request to the court: "She seeks an order that the building and contents be removed, the hole where the cottage is located be filled in, and her sister be prohibited from coming onto the property."

The court agreed, and ordered her sister to pay her $3,000 in legal costs. (The sisters did not respond to an interview request.)

Avoiding such conflicts takes both creativity and compromise.

A man who shared a cottage with several brothers and sisters was about to tear down a sagging bunkhouse, only to learn that it was a sacred site to two of his brothers -- one had lost his virginity there, while another remembered it as the place where he smoked his first joint. To avoid a fight, the bunkhouse was allowed to remain where it was, a ruined monument to past glories.

Another family fell into a heated debate over alterations to the kitchen of the cottage that had been in the family since they were children. The kitchen included a 2-by-4 post where their parents had marked their heights as they grew. To avoid a battle, they agreed to centre the design of the new kitchen around the post.

"It drove the designer crazy," says an arbitrator who helped the family sort out the dilemma. "But it worked."

"Sometimes the best result is when nobody's happy," Mr. Miller says. "That means no one got everything they wanted.

As for the Hunts, Gord and Jonathan began gradually breaking the ice four years later. From awkward meetings at family gatherings, they have progressed over the past few years to the occasional session of fishing or snowmobiling.

The overt hostilities have ended, but their relationship is not what it was before. Neither brother has visited the other's home since 1992.

Gord has tried to put the fight in perspective by looking at the vacation-home situations in which other people find themselves tangled. He mentions an acquaintance who is now trying to share a lakefront cottage with siblings. "When you go there, the tension is like electricity," Gord says. "It makes your hair stand on end."

His experience has taught him a lot about family dynamics, he says, and the peculiar complexity of trying to share a cottage in particular. "It's like a forced marriage," he says. "There's always something festering. And when it comes apart, it's like bad divorce. No matter what, someone always feels like they got shafted.

"These things go down ugly. That's just the way they are."

Survival tips -- How to avoid cottage wars in your family.

  • When a cottage is being passed down, plan for the tax bite. Unlike a principal residence, a cottage is subject to capital-gains tax, which is assessed on the increase in its value since it was purchased. Failing to plan for this could result in children being forced to sell the cottage.
  • Set up a cottage trust fund. Because siblings may have widely varying financial resources, some may find it difficult to share expenses equally. Parents can set up a trust fund that generates income that can be used to help pay expenses.
  • For cottage sharers: Prepare a written cottage co-ownership agreement with a lawyer. Work out a plan for sharing responsibilities and expenses. Siblings (or other relatives) must agree on the whos, whens and hows of opening and closing the cottage, routine maintenance and expenses such as upkeep and taxes.
  • Agree to a sharing schedule. Don't assume it will be fine for everyone just to drop in whenever they please.
  • Decide whether family members are allowed to bring guests to the cottage, and whether they are allowed to rent it out.
  • Consider creative alternatives. Some families have set up corporations that own their cottages. Family members are given shares that determine how much they get to use the cottage, and how much they must contribute toward expenses.

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