Saturday, January 5, 2008

To stop urban sprawl, don't build houses

Bob Dylan said "The times they are a changin'." Well, not really.

In the late 1970s, my parents and I lived in a fair sized bungalow in Hamilton's Leckie Park section, the area roughly bounded by Highland, Upper Centennial, Rymal and 1st Road West. This was way out of the built-up area in those days, part of a larger area once known as Satellite City and today known as Heritage Green. We had quite a huge backyard, so much so that my parents attempted to get the lot severed. The city and county fought us all the way up to the Ontario Municipal Board; and we lost. Not long after we moved to another part of the Satellite area -- Albion Estates -- the new owners managed to get it severed.

Must have been our last name, we thought at the time -- but in retrospect I've come to understand the very real concern about urban sprawl. The area then abutted the urban boundary, which began just a half block from our home at the former CKOC transmitter towers. (That tells you how old I am!) And it also turns out we weren't the only ones who had trouble severing -- other neighbours did too, only to see future owners get the approvals.

Well, the area is now fully urbanized with hundreds -- no, thousands of homes, and a Big Box conglomeration, complete with a SprawlMart. Not the small mall store, but one of those huge ones that Americans are familiar with. I don't even recognize the area anymore. Only one or two of the neighbour families we still know still lives in the area and they don't recognize it either.

So ... fast forward to today. A local city councillor, who owns a fair size farm spread in Lower Stoney Creek (small by Western standards, but a farm nonetheless), wants to sever his lot so a guest house he built for farm hands -- namely his sister and her husband -- so the couple can have their own space. The citizen run board of adjustment approved the request, but this goes against the advise of city staff so now the city's appealing the decision. Wisely, Mitchell is staying out of it because of the obvious conflict of interest.

As first glance, I can understand the apprehension. Then, as now, the concern is about having urban pockets in what's supposed to be a rural area. Uh -- Winona? Fruitland? Alberton? Carlyle? And let's not forget Binbrook and Mount Hope. So was Heritage Green, once. Isn't this being just a little bit hypocritical? Do people really think other farmers are just going to build guest houses of their own so they can sever as well? They're not really all that a common occurrence in Canada -- you tend to think of guest houses for rich people in urban areas, not rural ones.

For heaven's sake, the house is already there. As Mitchell correctly points out, severance would be a win-win for the city because his sister and brother-in-law would start paying property taxes; and as a separate property the city would actually get more money on the mill rate, not less. Of course we need to protect what's left of the tender fruit lands, but Mitchell got approval to build the house in the first place -- where were the concerns of the moron city staff then? (Okay, so in those days it was still Stoney Creek, but there still had to be some integration with the county-wide urban strategy.) Otherwise, they wouldn't have had this problem to begin with.

Is it any reason why Hamilton continues to have a steady decline of tax revenues? Other neighbouring cities simply don't have this problem. Burlington has a very clear boundary between urban and rural -- the 407 -- and they are thriving. Of course, it also helps that city is run like a business and not an ad hoc snake oil medicine show. Even in the country, I think Burlington would have approved it without objection -- mo' money for the city after all.

This time, it's the board of adjustment that's right and the city staff that's wrong. Just sever the damn property, and leave the Mitchells in peace.

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