Saturday, August 20, 2011

Exurban Development in Greater Sudbury: Fiscally Irresponsible, Environmentally Unsustainable

The following is a copy of a letter which I have submitted to members of Greater Sudbury's municipal council:


It was with interest that I read a recent article appearing in the Sudbury Star, “Council looks at priorities” (August 17, 2011). The article explained that our municipal Councillors would be prioritizing ideas generated at recent visioning sessions. One idea in particular, highlighted in the Star article, caught my attention and has led me to writing this letter to each member of Greater Sudbury’s Council.

The development of cottage lots on remote lakes in our City will be a detriment to the City’s long term economic prosperity. Investing in sprawl of any sort – but particularly exurban sprawl – has been shown time and again to be a drain on municipal finances. Exurban sprawl is a particularly egregious form of development, which is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

Although the Sudbury Star article couches the proposed initiative as “camp” or “cottage” development, the fact is that with last year’s approval of the City’s new comprehensive zoning by-law, we no longer have zoning which distinguishes between permanent and seasonal development. Instead, the more workable “limited services” concept was preferred by the City.

What this means is that any residential development in the City can not be limited to non-permanent uses. That means that for lands which might be developed as camps, there can be no guarantees that they won’t become permanent residences.

The conversion of non-permanent residential uses to permanent dwellings is an issue which many Northern communities are facing, including our own. Where formerly seasonal residents retire to the “cottage”, or where seasonal properties are sold as income properties to buyers looking for a more remote lifestyle, conversions often bring demands for new infrastructure. Where private roads exist, our Council is lobbied to assume the roads – and associated maintenance costs. Where public roads exist, calls for street-lighting, school bus stops, and waste disposal pick-ups are common. Further, expectations are raised that permanent residents will enjoy the same service standards from emergency responders no matter where they live in the community.

All of these calls for new services will bring additional costs to our community.

With regards to the idea of setting aside new lands for remote waterfront development, those costs would be even more considerable for Greater Sudbury taxpayers. Although subdivided lakefront lands may be taxed at a higher rate, generating revenues for the municipality, time and again it has been shown that any minor increase in tax revenue is more than offset by additional service requirements. That’s particularly so when new roads are being constructed to reach lakefront development. The long term maintenance of these roads also must be considered.

Even in circumstances where roads may already be in existence, there will be additional infrastructure-related costs. While these costs might not be felt by taxpayers today, certainly our children and grandchildren will be on the hook for paying for this unsustainable form of development. Most of the benefits associated with exurban development accrue to individuals, while many of the costs are borne by communities.

Given that the City of Greater Sudbury is only expected to grow modestly over the next 20 years, as indicated in the City’s own Official Plan, it does not make sense that a greater proportion of new residents be directed to remote areas of the City, particularly when there are significant opportunities to accommodate expected growth through infill and redevelopment within our existing urban areas. Building upwards, not outwards, makes much better use of existing resources, and leads to the creation of more robust communities, which can support public transit, cycling and walking as less expensive, less environmentally impacting forms of transportation.

The City’s Official Plan embraces the principle of directing the majority of new development to existing urban areas, while severely limiting development in rural areas. It does so based on the understanding that exurban development is economically unsustainable. There is no good reason for Council to consider undermining the principles which guide development as found in the City’s Official Plan.

I strongly urge our Council to think ahead about the type of City that residents will need to meet our medium and long-term needs. Please, look out for the economic health of existing residents and our children, rather than prioritising exurban development interests. When you facilitate development in rural areas, there is always an opportunity cost which must be paid. Please don’t pursue a cottage lot development scheme which will economically disadvantage the taxpayers of our City.

Steve May

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

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