It all started ten years ago when Anthony Barrett  drew the attention of  the City of Welland, Ontario, after building his off-grid straw bale demonstration home.

They approached him about creating an off-grid community. However, the project was abandoned as costs quickly escalated when local developers were involved.

Instead, Anthony began to look up North for new opportunities for off-grid living. He founded Boreal Forest Medieval Villages (BFMV), buying four projects totaling over 800 acres in Unorganized Townships in Northern Ontario and creating communities on the properties.

Photo: BFMV

Living completely off-grid, each member of the community leases their site on a pre-paid 20-year term with no lease renewal fees. Each members’ association is independently owned and operated by its members.

“We cannot legally offer more than a 20-year term lease without invoking the Ontario Planning Act which is about creating subdivisions and we have no interest in doing so,” Anthony says.

“We didn’t know if there would be enough interest out there, so I created a Facebook page and organized the first group basically just to purchase the property. Then, they took over.”

After that first project, Anthony says, there’s been more involvement from BFMV to build infrastructure and improve quality of living at the projects. “I’ve been  playing more of a role developing the projects ourselves just because there’s so much to it and, you know, it’s not as easy as ‘let’s just go out and purchase some land and set up some tiny homes or whatever’. There’s an awful lot to it.”

Photo: BFMV

Currently, there are roads being put in at project number four, with over 400 members across all four projects. As the number of Northern off-grid communities grows, so does attention from the media and controversy with local residents.

“We have to follow the law, same as everyone else. We haven’t left the province.”

Anthony emphasizes that everything BFMV does is above-board and follows the current laws. He attributes the controversy to “not in my backyard” attitudes of local residents who are suddenly faced with an affordable housing community nearby.

Photo: BFMV

As an example, Project 4 is stunningly affordable at $20,000 for a cleared site, year-round road access, access to 2 lakes and 60 acres of common land on the 100-acre property. This offer, Anthony believes, is putting the current housing system on edge.

“We’re working in tandem with the government, following the law, doing what’s required, but this concept of creating communities is controversial – I mean, we’re removing the developer and a lot of the costs, which makes new housing options very affordable.”

Starting an off-grid community in an Unorganized Township involves a lot of considerations and it’s not as “anything goes” as some real estate agents will have you believe.

“Number one is to create a site map from a professional survey for the sites and figure out where the roads are going to go, topography of the property. There’s a lot of technology for that today which keeps the costs down.”

“Then we have to go through a formal ECA (Environmental Compliance Approval). It takes years. We have to test soil and water samples at different times of the year and we have to do it over multiple years so that we have enough data to move the project forward.”

Photo: BFMV

“The requirement to build to Ontario Building  Code has  been around forever. The only problem is, there’s no  place to get a permit or have inspectors come out. There’s nothing like that, so the Ontario government has decided that they want to bring in inspectors to be responsible for Unorganized Townships. That’s good for us because it takes the concern off our shoulders, we can work in tandem with the ministry.”

Some outstanding issues remain in dealing with both the Province and nearby Municipalities.

Anthony is working with the Ministry of Environment on the issue of accepted treatment of grey water, and he says, they are discussing various solutions.

Photo: BFMV

The other issue is taxes.

OPP and healthcare are provided by the province and covered by provincial taxes imposed on the lot. Waste management, Anothony adds, is also not a drain on nearby municipalities. Each township has their own waste management sites and members pay per bag of garbage so there is no added cost to the township.

Schools remain an unresolved municipality-level concern.  Anthony acknowledges that more work needs to be done to make municipal taxes fair regarding adding extra potential taxation for children in local school boards.

“We should be paying our portion, but we pay a lump sum for the one property. They hadn’t envisioned a group of people living that way. The lump sum is currently for one family.”

“It’s not a question of being against whatever the government is presenting. It’s trying to figure out what they want and then how to follow along with it. We’ve been working with the various ministries, we’re pushing to follow the Ontario Building Code, which is a bit of a challenge because people think they can bring just anything in. It’s a learning curve for all of us. But, we have never been told we can’t do this and we have been following the law and working with the government every step of the way.”

On the BFMV website, their vision is stated as: “waterfront; off-grid; in unorganized township; sustainable living values.”

While most of the current members are over 40 with no kids, Anthony would like to see more young families and telecommuters joining these off-grid communities.

Living off-grid in the North also comes with its own challenges. “It’s a hard life. In winter, there’s six feet of snow and it’s minus 30. You travel by ATV and snowmobile. The technology is there [to live off-grid], but it’s just very different.”

Most members of the off-grid communities live there seasonally, preferring to spend the winters elsewhere.

Photo: BFMV

“We just purchased our fifth project in Panama, which is something many of our members were asking for. They weren’t staying up there (Northern Ontario) the whole year, so I started looking around for a winter getaway and found this wonderful affordable oceanfront property in Panama. That’s something we’re very excited about.”


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