Ten years after they were unveiled, Hamilton is still not ready to implement mandatory provincial smart growth policies says Brian McHattie. One consequence is a five–year delay in starting to correct the subsidies that favour greenfield sprawl and punish the infill development required by the province.
McHattie says it’s a “real dropped ball” that the city is “not ready for intensification ten years after the Places to Grow Act” was unveiled in July 2004. He noted the city also completed its own growth strategy with similar objectives in 2006. And he pointed to the provincial law starting next year that requires at least 40% of new residential growth to take place in built–up areas.
The provincial Liberals successful election platform in 2003 promised policies “to combat the economic, social and environmental problems associated with suburban expansion” and they followed through with a 600,000 acre Greenbelt to protect agricultural land as well as a new Provincial Policy Statement of planning rules. A year earlier they had issued a draft growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe that was finalized in 2006 as “Places to Grow” which forces cities to focus on re–development rather than more expansion onto agricultural land.
McHattie’s concerns were triggered by a staff decision to not re–balance growth fees to recognize that servicing costs are higher for greenfield suburbs than for re–development of properties in older parts of the city where roads, pipes, sidewalks and other city services already exist. Instead the same development charge will continue to be imposed for at least until July 2019 irrespective of where the growth occurs.
Council has long recognized the unfairness of the current system but has responded by exempting some parts of the city such as the downtown of old Hamilton from paying growth fees, but these and other discounts have to be made up through higher water rates and/or property taxes.
Planner Pamela Blais argues a single city–wide development fee perversely counters anti–sprawl objectives by under–charging for expansion on farmlands, and significantly over–charging for infill and intensification projects despite the latter being officially favoured by city and province.
“The actual costs to develop on greenfield lands are about 80% higher than are those to develop on already urbanized land,” she writes in Perverse Cities, her award–winning book. “Perversely, the more efficient house ends up subsidizing the inefficient house – akin to a smart car subsidizing a Hummer.”
Blais gave a public lecture in Hamilton in 2011 and addressed the public works committee and an informal gathering of planning staff that led to a council commitment to consider changes during the revision of development fees that was just completed last month.
Following Blais’ advice would mean higher development charges for greenfield development, so local developers opposed the change and argued that the variable fee structure could not be justified without detailed studies precisely defining which areas have adequate existing services to accommodate new growth.
“From the outset our position was that if you went down that path there’s a lot of work involved to make the numbers correct and that we would expect that work to be done before setting up the two charges,” Susan Mammel of the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association told McHattie and his colleagues.
McHattie contends such studies should already be in place and their absence “seems like a real threat to us meeting the intensification targets that we have before us”. City manager Chris Murray said studies have been done for the proposed LRT corridor and Director of Development Tony Sergi explained that for other areas “our current approach is based on the exact location” of a specific proposal. V