An email just before Christmas has thrown a local snowmobile tour company’s business into disarray.
Diverse Rentals & Vacations owner Jill Latondress says she’s had to pull the plug on operations for the coming season because a County of Simcoe Forestry official failed to respond to her inquiries in a timely manner.
It all started Dec. 16, when she received an email from a county forest bylaw officer saying her department had received a complaint and that there were a number of things the business would have to do differently.
Among other actions, Diverse Rentals & Vacations would have to pay extra fees to use any of the county forest tracks (that join many of the trails together and are used by the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) and all permit holders at no extra charge).
“The 17 OFSC trail permits we purchased are not enough anymore,” she says. “After 12 years, the rules have changed.”
But the County of Simcoe says that's not the case; the rules have been in place since 2006.
County forester Graeme Davis says the Simcoe County Forest is available for a wide range of recreational pursuits.
"A recreation policy, first approved in 2006, is in place to ensure it remains available for all responsible users while managing conflict and protecting the environment," Davis told Village Media.
Under this policy, all organized activities, including individual events and trail development, require a property use agreement to ensure the intent of the recreation policy is respected and to protect the county from undue liability, Davis explained.
"This type of agreement with commercial vendors is very common for all levels of governments; for instance provincial parks, ice rinks/arenas, and most municipal properties and facilities require commercial vendors to enter agreements," Davis explained, adding the information for commercial operators looking to use the county forest is available on their website.
Davis stressed the "policy is not new," and said "any previous use of county property by this operator was done so without the county's knowledge."
The Tiny Township company said it was frustrated to learn it may have to pay unspecified administration and user fees along with having to pay for a county staff member to observe the tours as they ride through the county's vast forest network.
While the company would also have to obtain liability insurance of $5 million, what galls Latondress the most is no dollar figures were given for how much many of these additional fees would cost.
“We were told the trail fee would be $1,100 for 21 tours and we expected to do five to eight tours a day, so that’s an extreme fee for us,” Latondress says. “There were other hoops that we were expected to jump through, too, that would have taken time and would also delay our season.”
And while she says the employee told her she would return with a full breakdown of costs the following Monday, Latondress heard nothing despite her continued efforts throughout the week to get answers and to actually read the complaint that started it all in the first place since “we’ve never even had a trespassing complaint.”
Then, on the Friday just before Christmas, Latondress says, she finally received an email from the employee that only noted she would be away until Jan. 4.
So with people booking tours, a $20,000 insurance payment due and still no firm direction on the fees, Latondress says she made the difficult decision to cancel and refund already-booked tours and start the process of shedding that aspect of her business since it will continue to offer boat tours as well as water-sport and boat rentals.
“I don’t know what the fees are. It could be tens of thousands of dollars,” Latondress says, pointing out she can’t afford to continue to operate the business or start up at a later date with so many unknowns.
“I can’t afford to pay all that out. She (the bylaw officer) has literally closed us down.”
On its website, the forestry department notes, “Non-motorized recreational pursuits are welcome throughout the forest. Motorized trail riding is permitted only on designated trails with a valid club membership and only within some forest properties.”
For Diverse Rentals & Vacations, the decision to cease tours means nine full-time and two part-time trail guides have been laid off and Latondress is in the process of selling the company’s 17 newer-model snowmobiles, a fleet that includes five brand-new machines, along with helmets and other accessories.
She also plans to donate the company’s large inventory of assorted boots, coats and pants to charity.
Latondress predicts her company’s decision will also hurt businesses Diverse Rentals & Vacations frequents while also causing a ripple effect in the community with local restaurants, hotels and other businesses being hit hardest by fewer visitors coming up for snowmobile tours.
“We’ve had visitors from Mexico, Spain, Syria,” Latondress says, noting tourists who might go skiing in Collingwood would often drop over to north Simcoe for a snowmobile tour as part of their Canadian experience.
"It is unfortunate for the local businesses who will be without the tens of thousands of dollars that was spent by our thousands of clients at gas stations, restaurants, stores and hotels.
“Last year, we had 1,032 people come up for tours. Now, none of them are coming up to Midland/Penetanguishene.”