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For every ‘burb built, Maple Ridge pays

Development cost charges don
Development cost charges don't pay full cost of new suburbs, says Maple Ridge staff.
— image credit: News Files

According to the finance manager Paul Gill, the District of Maple Ridge needs to change how it grows.

To keep sprawling does not make good business sense for taxpayers.

Building a suburb today is a money-losing proposition that will just see costs and bills pile up, said Gill, with taxpayers shouldering heavier burdens as the years go by.

Currently, any time a new suburb is built, developers construct the roads, sidewalks, sewer and water lines, then give them to the municipality, once projects are complete.

But after construction, it’s the district that will pay for years to keep the roads repaired, the water running and the streets safe.

“And those things last for decades, right? And they don’t give us a pot of money to look after that.”

Gill, corporate and financial services manager, said builders also pay development cost charges for basic infrastructure, but a new neighbourhood’s costs don’t end there.

“I don’t get development cost charges for a police station, I don’t get development cost charges for a fire hall. I don’t get development cost charges for a library,” Gill added.

“There are a number of direct demands like that, that are not provided for through development.”

Instead, taxpayers throughout the rest of Maple Ridge pay through continuously increasing property taxes.

“If that area doesn’t pay for it, then everybody else does and is that right?” Gill asked.

“I think we’ve got a good start with the DCCs. They’re not comprehensive enough.”

Most municipalities are now aware of such costs and are now seeking solutions.

Gill agrees with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who campaigned recently to have the true costs of suburban growth calculated before any project is approved.

Nenshi also maintained that developers weren’t paying the full cost of hooking up new homes to water and sewer, leading the City of Calgary subsiding developers $4,800 for each new home.

“Does it make sense to continue to build on the outskirts, and if you build on the outskirts, do these residents pay their way?” Gill asked.

Developers will claim that house prices will climb, but the solution is to build in existing areas where municipal development costs are lower.

While politicians, always facing elections every three, now four years, many have short-term thinking.

“This is one of these things that elected officials will have to take bold steps on,” Gill said.

“When you put a better dollar (figure) around things, then let the market dictate outcomes.

“But until you do that, there’s a real cost there that’s not being reflected in the decisions that are being made.”

The more that continues, the worse finances will get, he added.

Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin is less sure on the costs of growth and the premise that suburbs don’t pay the full costs.

“That may get residents up in arms.”

Developers today put in storm sewer, sidewalks, sewer and water supplies, and if it’s required to extend the services some distance, that’s all borne by the developer.

“Are we recouping the full … it’s not the cost of getting it there, I think it’s the cost of maintaining it, after it’s there.”

Should developers pay for the ongoing operations and maintenance of that infrastructure? Daykin asked.

“Well, that’s a non-starter, I think. The homeowner or the people that are using that, need to look after that.”

He pointed out, half a per cent of residents’ yearly tax increase now goes into the infrastructure replacement fund.

Daykin said a new approach could be to offer residents the choice of local improvement charges when major repairs are needed. That way, only residents affected would pay for the maintenance.

And increasing density in built-up areas also will require larger libraries and put more demands on police and fire services, as the population grows, he pointed out.

“I think there’s room for both [suburban and compact growth].”

The mayor said Maple Ridge has already encouraged the latter by offering three years of exemptions and fee discounts for building in the downtown, reflecting the lower infrastructure costs.

The urban boundary, which separates urban development from farming and fields, must be maintained.

“We need to stay within the urban area that we’ve got.”

When it comes to looking at Maple Ridge’s current situation, Coun. Mike Morden suggests looking back in time, such as the decision to allow simultaneous development of Albion and Silver Valley.

“In retrospect now, I would suggest that was a mistake,” he said.

“You densify where you believe your transportation corridors are, where your municipal infrastructure is.”

“You don’t bring your municipal infrastructure to where you want to develop. You do it the other way. That’s the way responsible development is done.”

Silver Valley has no transit services or schools.

“That’s sad, to me,” Morden said.

“Pitt Meadows hasn’t done it that way.”

Coun. Al Hogarth, who was mayor when the Silver Valley area plan – based on environment-first principles – was approved in 2002, said the suburb is better planned than previous neighbourhoods.

Eventually, there will be stores and services, he added.

The area was planned to allow more green space, creating “eco clusters” using innovative stormwater management techniques to protect streams.

He added that developers already pay a lot in development cost charges. Home buyers feel the same way.

“How much more front-end loading do you do?”

He noted that north Albion density bonusing, recently OK’d by council, gives the district another $3,100 per lot for builders who want to move to the next level of density.

As for critics who say the district shouldn’t expand its suburbs, “Numerous times people say that to me, and I would say nine times out of 10, they’re the people who already live in a single family home that are part of that suburban sprawl.

“I’m living in exactly what I’m telling you nobody else should be living in. I don’t get it.”

Morden, who’s running for mayor in November 2014, points out that at in five years, Maple Ridge will have only $6 million in the newly created infrastructure replacement fund.

Yet, “We’ve got over a billion worth of infrastructure in our municipality,” he said.

“Who’s going to pay for fixing this when it breaks? Guess what? We’re going to pay for it.”

The more infrastructure that’s added, the larger the long-term financial burden for Maple Ridge and its residents.

Instead, Morden wants to review the 2006 official community plan, which calls for expansion to another area, Thornhill, when Maple Ridge’s population hits 100,000.

“The times are changing and our potential cost ramifications of not doing that work are problematic,” Morden said.

“If we don’t grow responsibly, we’re going to end up overburdening a lot of people down the road.”

He wants the downtown to grow by 20,000, as in the plans, with another 10,000 in the areas around the core area.

It also means reconsidering development of Thornhill, east of 248th Street, which will be costly to service.

“Is that responsible development? No, it’s not. And you have to stop that.”

Morden said Maple Ridge’s population density will determine if the district gets light rail transit or more West Coast Express service.

That could be another decade, if it happens. Meanwhile, Maple Ridge will see another 20,000 vehicles on its roads.

“I don’t think we’re doing a very good job advocating to TransLink. How much money do we give them in taxation and gas [surcharge]. What are you doing for us at all?”

 

Reducing costs

A study done by the City of Calgary cited in Infrastructure Costs and Urban Growth Management, 2012 (Canadian International Development Agency), said costs of roads, sewers, parks and sidewalks could be reduced by one third, if compact development is followed.

When types of infrastructure are identified, it finds that the capital cost of fire halls can be reduced by 46 per cent in compact communities, while water and sewer systems can drop by 54 per cent.

Operating costs are also lower.

It says that compact growth means that housing is put closer to job centres, which in turn makes it easier to serve with transit and by walking and cycling.

But achieving compact growth requires a change in policy and thinking. “Vested interests in the business community, civil society and even municipalities themselves can present formidable obstacles to shifting patterns of growth from sprawling to compact.”

It also says there has to be a “strong link” between land use and transportation.

 

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