Monday, February 6, 2012

Why Restricting Rural Residential Development in Greater Sudbury Makes Sense

The following was originally posted in a somewhat different format in response to a comment made on the Sudbury Star’s website (post #2), itself in response to a letter to the editor from my friend Richard Paquette, published in the Monday, February 6 2012 edition of the Sudbury Star (“Changes would cause more urban sprawl”). I didn’t know that Richard was intending on writing his letter, but as a resident of Azilda, I can understand why he would be concerned at promoting even more sprawl in rural parts of the City of Greater Sudbury.

I spoke about the need to severely restrict additional rural residential development in Greater Sudbury at a recent meeting of Planning Committee, at which the 5-year review of the City’s Official Plan was being discussed. Earlier that evening, I had been delighted to hear that the City had identified rural residential development as one of the issues which was going to be looked at as part of the review. This acknowledgement of the importance of the issue motivated me to speak at the meeting, about an issue which I believe to be the flip-side of the smart growth coin.

Little did I understand at the time that the primary reason that the City had chosen to review rural residential development policies was for the purpose of allowing more as-of-right development by loosening policies further, and directing growth to our rural areas instead of to existing, already built-up parts of our City (like the Azilda community) which are fully serviced and which have an abundance of capacity. Given that the City itself acknowledges that there are over 500 vacant and developable rural residential lots already in existence, it just boggles my mind that the City would be looking at facilitating the creation of more expensive rural residential lots, to be subsidized by our limited taxpayer dollars!

However, Richard Pacquette, in his letter to the editor of the Sudbury Star, suggests that perhaps there is something else at play here: politics. In my reply to dhuglas (one of the more socially-conscious posters on the Sudbury Star site, I might add, and oft-time ally in seemingly never-ending battles with on-line Conservative trolls), I state that there is no good reason for allowing more rural residential development. But there are a lot of very bad reasons.

I have blogged about this issue before, in the context of cottage lot development (“Exurban Development in Greater Sudbury: Fiscally Irresponsible, Environmentally Unsustainable”). A lot of what I wrote then continues to be germane to the conversation which we’re just starting to have in Greater Sudbury around rural residential development.

Rural Residential Development: A Net Cost to Taxpayers

With regards to the cost/benefits of rural residential development, on the surface it may seem that a greater number of freehold properties should produce higher tax revenues for a municipality, especially if those properties are assessed at a residential rate rather than an agricultural one. Indeed, splitting lots does lead to increased revenues for municipalities. This argument is often used by speculators and other rural land owners as a justification for subdividing rural properties.

But the facts of the matter strongly suggest otherwise. Indeed, rural residential development is the very most expensive form of residential development in municipalities. The increased property tax revenues generated by additional rural residences never pay for themselves in the long run, and what we end up with is a form of development (primarily for wealthier land owners who may have multiple residences, or larger homes in rural settings) which is subsidized by other municipal taxpayers.

That Greater Sudbury already has a significant amount of this uneconomical form of development may be one of the reasons that our property tax circumstance always appears to be on the increase. Although many rural homeowners complain that taxes can become a burden (especially those with older homes on waterfronts, which have disproportionately been affected with higher assessment rates due to rising property values), the fact is that higher property taxes financially impact all homeowners throughout the City. And since urban taxpayers are, in essence, subsidizing rural homeowners, it is important to understand why rural residential development should be limited in order to improve the economic health of a majority of residents.

Smart Growth

A denser form of development, which isn’t desirable for everyone, is nonetheless a more efficient form of development in just about every way. The delivery of public services costs far less in urban situations than in suburban areas of the City, and far, far less than in exurban areas. While some exurban areas may not receive the same levels of servicing as others (especially public sewer and water), the fact is that road maintenance alone often compensates for increased costs.

Exurban development opportunities also detract from a community’s ability to grow more densely in urban areas. Since any given municipality is only going to attract a certain number of new households with a defined period of time, directing those new households to exurban areas, where servicing prices are high, means that there will be fewer people living in urban parts of a community where servicing costs are much lower. It also detracts from community redevelopment opportunities where a better mix of residential and commercial activities can take place side-by-side, often with greater densities.

Food Security

Creating rural residential lots in agricultural areas also has an incredibly negative impact on new and existing agricultural operations. In Greater Sudbury, we’ve already sterilized a significant area of what might otherwise be excellent agricultural lands due to poor lot creation policies. Right now, our primary agricultural areas aren’t under as significant a threat as they once were, due to protective land use policies, but secondary agricultural areas continue to be at risk. At a time when the idea of food security is fast becoming a major concern for residents of communities (especially those which find themselves hundreds of kilometres along a supply chain dependent on just a few transportation arteries, such as Greater Sudbury does), it only makes sense that we do what we can to protect our agricultural lands and make it easier, not more difficult, for our farmers to do their jobs. That’s another reason why directing residential development to already-established areas makes sense.

Cost-Effective Use of Existing Infrastructure

We have a number of core areas in the City of Greater Sudbury which would benefit from increased development. Often, infrastructure which can accomodate additional development is already in place in these core areas, and additional development will increase infrastructure efficiencies.

Rural residential development, when viewed as an opportunity lost, as well as a form of development with higher costs which are subsidized by taxpayers, the impacts which this form of development has on a community can be quite substantial. This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. Study after study has shown that the real costs of rural residential development create a long-term burden to taxpayers.

The Need to Place Limits on Rural Residential Development

Once created, it takes a significant effort to go back and reconsolidate residential lots. A better approach would be for a municipality to severely limit this form of development, or establish higher rates of taxation so that rural residential landowners pay their fair share. Both of these measures are often politically unpalatable for rural residential landowners and speculators, but that’s the sort of solution we need to be looking at in these times of fiscal restraint. The justification that increased taxation from new lots leads to a better economic circumstance for a city just isn’t supported by the empiric evidence.

In Greater Sudbury, with an abundance of vacant rural residential lots already in existence, there really is no need to create more lots in our rural areas. Since the costs are too high (both in terms of real costs and opportunity costs), and the built-form created is detrimental to other rural land users, it only makes sense that we prohibit opportunities for the creation of any further rural residential lots in our City. Simply put, there is no need for more lots, and no justifiable economic argument which can be made to support the creation of more lots.

With all levels of government looking to save costs, it's time that we acknowledge that we can no longer continue to subsidize inefficient and unsustainable rural residential development. We need to plan for the future in which are going to find ourselves in. It's time for the City to include policies in its land use plan which will prohibit the creation of new residential lots in rural areas, and preserve our rural areas for appropriate rural land uses, while protecting taxpayers from unnecessary tax increases.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

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