If suburban homes are no longer affordable once their prices reflect the actual cost of servicing, that suggests the logic of greenfield development is actually a false economy.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 12, 2009
Hamilton city planners want to increase development charges to recoup more of the cost of servicing new subdivisions. The Hamilton Halton Home Building Association (HHHBA), long accustomed to getting its way in Hamilton, has been busy whittling the city down.
Citizens at City Hall (CATCH) reports that while the planned increase has already been cut by $1,500 per house, the HHHBA request to freeze development fees at their current low rates could cost the city $7 million in unpaid servicing charges.Planning staff recommend increasing the development charge per house by $7,394 to $26,967. Even with the incrase, that would still put Hamilton in 20th place out of 25 neighbouring municipalities.
The issue is that current charges aren't enough to cover the necessary but expensive expansion of water and sewer treatment and distribution facilities, which are already running over-capacity.
The Hamilton Spectator recently echoed the HHHBA call to freeze rates at their current level, claiming that a recession is no time to increase development charges.
This, of course, is an excellent case in point of the often large gap between the rhetoric of free market capitalism and the actual political objectives of business interests. Businesses tend to want free markets for everyone else and preferential treatment for themselves.
It should go without saying that if suburban homes are no longer competitive or even affordable once their prices reflect the actual cost of providing public services, that suggests the logic of greenfield development is actually a false economy.
Now, if subsidizing sprawl produced a net benefit to society as a whole, it might be justified. Unfortunately, sprawl is a net drain by a variety of measures.
The configuration of low density sprawl land use requires high rates of car ownership and results in much higher distances driven, with accompanying higher rates of fuel consumption, air pollution and GHG emissions.
The air pollution results in higher rates of heart disease, and the sedentary habits that attend car-dependent living results in higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle-related conditions (see here, here, here, here and here).
In addition, sprawl results in the destruction of dependable farmland. This is particularly disheartening in Hamilton, which is surrounded by some of the best farmland on the planet but lost 20 percent of its farmland between 1991 and 2006.
Sprawl also forces public service providers to re-deploy their scarce resources outward. Fiscal pressure from the steady growth of sprawl development is forcing the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) to close inner city schools so it can afford to build new suburban schools.
All the money and resources sunk into increasing road capacity also turns out to be counter-productive. As a result of induced demand and other counter-intuitive network effects, investments in increased lane capacity generally result in more, not less, congestion.
In fact, cities that invest the most in road capacity end up with the worst congestion and the most air pollution. This is because more people drive longer distances more often when it is easier to drive. This 'traps' people in car-dependent living arrangements that persist even when increasing congestion wipes out the putative advantages to driving.
Unfortunately, City Councillors don't seem willing to stand up to the home building industry. A motion by councillor Brian McHattie for the committee looking at the issue to proceed with endorsing the staff recommendation and passing it to City Council was defeated 6-2.
Instead, they voted 6-2 to make no recommendation, which leaves wide open the possibility that the status will remain quo. For what it's worth, the audit and administration committee is open to delegations from local residents and organizations when it considers this issue at its June 4 meeting.
Contrast Hamilton's spineless pandering with Halton regional chair Gary Carr, who last October flatly stated, "Growth is not paying for itself. Until it does, we are not going to continue to grow. It's as simple as I can put it."
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