Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Killing the KED is the Low-Hanging Fruit for Fiscal and Environmental Sustainability in Greater Sudbury

I have been a part of several recent online discussions on the subject of the costs of urban sprawl to taxpayers. I've seen this come up in response to recent media about municipal tax increases (and what's driving the need for higher taxes - see: "Keeping Sudbury's tax hike to three per cent will be a challenge: city staff," the Sudbury Star, October 15 2021). And I've seen it come up in response to an article from Sudbury dot com about how some rich land-owning developers and one municipal councilor are eagerly encouraging sprawl development along the Kingsway, due to the KED (see: "Business owners anticipate boom around Kingsway Entertainment District," Sudbury dot com, October 19, 2021). 

A recent report on the costs of sprawl in the City of Ottawa is being cited by urban activists and taxpayers groups. This report, by Hemson Consulting, pegged the costs of servicing new residential sprawl development as being $465 per resident per year - costs beyond what are collected by homeowners in the form of taxes and fees. That means that every single resident of the City of Ottawa is subsidizing generally well-to-do homeowners living in sprawling suburbs (see: "Suburban expansion costs increase to $465 per person per year in Ottawa," CBC, September 29 2021). 

In contrast, high density infill development was found to contribute over $600 per resident, annually, to the City's coffers. Meaning, residents living in high-density buildings, often renters, are paying more than their fair share for the costs of servicing development. This is, of course, the opposite of equity - those who can pay more are paying the least - actually receiving a subsidy for their profligate lifestyle choices - while those with the least disposable income to spare are asked to subsidize the rich - generally speaking, of course. 

Some will write off the study as being specific to Ottawa. And it is. Others will claim that it only looked at residential development, so it's not right to think that the same might be true for other forms of development, like commercial. And of course, that's valid - but only to a certain extent. Market forces at work in Ottawa on residential development are not all that different than those in play here in Greater Sudbury - except maybe for the actual costs of maintaining things like roads, bridges and pipes are probably more expensive here than in Ottawa because of our colder climate and rock-hard northerly terrain. So costs to provide services here are probably higher, requiring a deeper subsidy for sprawl development. 

Our city's lack of fiscal health can be traced easily to the bad development decisions that were made in the pat to facilitate a costly form of suburban and ex-urban sprawl that valued getting around in personal motorized vehicles above all else. We've known this for decades, and every additional study like the Hemson Ottawa study should be one more nail in the coffin of sprawl development. And yet, it isn't. We may be doing a slightly better job of intensifying existing and new development forms, but clearly the studies are continuing to show a preference for subsidizing well-to-do suburban lifestyle choices in preference to sound economic decisions to stop sprawl. We could have lower tax increases. We could have lower greenhouse gas emissions. But because we keep choosing sprawl, our decisions work against our community's economic health and that of the planet. 

And this isn't just a Greater Sudbury issue by any means. The City of Hamilton, too, is presently facing an existential threat to fiscal sustainability in the form of the provincial government insisting it identify more lands than it needs for anticipated development, because rich developers with links to the government want to be able to make money. My good friend Lilly Noble discusses this in her recent piece for the Hamilton Spectator, "Doug Ford wants developer profits over healthy growth," October 18 2021. 
Photo Credit: CBC News

It's all got to stop. Here in Greater Sudbury, it clearly must start with the Kingsway Entertainment District - an incredibly ill-conceived and expensive project for which there is no actual need. The KED is the low-hanging fruit for a city that has declared a climate emergency, and which professes to have interest in keeping municipal tax increases at a reasonable level. The KED is a symbol of the future that we want: to continue on the road to poor economic health for our communities, or to finally start getting serious about economic and environmental sustainability.