Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Costly sprawl in Maple Ridge

When hubbie Ivan and I went to the last HUB AGM about a week ago, Ivan, as one of our local HUB committee's co-chairs, gave a little summary of what's been happening in Maple Ridge cycle-land. When he took the stage, people started laughing - just like at last year's AGM: "ha-ha-ha.... Maple Ridge? Where's that?". OK....obviously we have a long way to go when it comes to  being a true cycling paradise for people who use their bikes as a mode of transportation, but we're trying our best!

Of course we're quite a sprawling community, and the distances can be discouraging for some. What's more discouraging perhaps is the absence of a safe place to ride on roads that encourage drivers to go fast.

Sprawl doesn't help when you want to get more people on their bikes. But it also has other disadvantages. One of them is that it's a lot more expensive for the municipality to maintain and provide services like fire, ambulance and law enforcement. In Maple Ridge, like in many other communities all over North America, we already have something called an "infrastructure deficit": we're spending much less than what's needed to maintain our existing infrastructure. That's why I think it's not a good idea to add more wasteful infrastructure, especially if the taxes generated don't cover the long-term cost.

Yesterday I went to a public meeting to give my two cents about a large development of 91 one-acre lots at 12420 269 Street, which is 5 kms outside the urban boundary:

The reason given by Councillors for approving these kinds of developments is usually that they want to give residents choice: those who want to live on acreage should be able to do so. What I have a problem with, is that the long-term costs of maintenance and eventual replacement of the infrastructure and the needed services are not covered by the tax revenue that these kinds of properties generate. The cost of providing things like municipal water, roads and emergency services are much higher for remote, large-lot developments like these than for denser developments closer to town. Having more car-dependent developments also means more parking is required downtown – a wasteful use of precious space and non-revenue generating for us as tax payers, but mostly free for the user . Ever increasing requirements to facilitate car traffic and car storage downtown also reduces livability and therefore continues to make it a less desirable place to live than it could be.

This development is about 5 km outside the urban boundary. It boggles my mind that we’re required to provide municipal water way out there in the boonies! Because we want to give people choice?  I don’t have a problem subsidizing housing if people really need some help. But I doubt that the people who choose to and can afford to live in this development really need to be subsidized by the rest of us.

On the one hand we give a select few the choice of private large-lot-large-house-living.  But at the same time, we put an extra, unnecessary burden on all existing and future tax payers who will eventually, collectively, have to pay up.

As Council knows, we already have a huge infrastructure deficit. 
  • According to the Maple Ridge Financial Plan 2012-2016, the approx. $800,000 spent on road maintenance is only about 8% of the $18 million annual requirement. I think this percentage is actually wrong. According to my own calculations it’s only about 4.5%.
  • We spend about $650,000 on storm sewer maintenance every year, which is only about 14% of the $4.5 million required.
  • We are currently allocating $450,000 to building and equipment renewal, which is only 12% of the $3.8 million we should be spending.

Raising our taxes to make up for the difference between cost and revenue in residential taxes would mean hundreds of dollars extra on the average property tax bill, which of course would lead to a revolt among tax payers. Since 2008 the municipality adds an extra 1% to our tax bill every year, so that in 25 years our infrastructure deficit will be ‘only’ half of what it is now. In other words: we are living beyond our means, we’re kicking the can down the road. So why is it ok to continue to add more of this kind of sprawl, to subsidize supersized lots in remote locations that are very expensive to service, while unnecessarily adding to our already huge infrastructure burden?

Maple Ridge prouds itself upon being a Smart Growth community, but why do we bother densifiying downtown, building expensive LEED buildings and investing in hybrid cars, while at the same time approving this kind of “ultimate sprawl”? It’s certainly not the first time. East Maple Ridge is already showing a patchwork of leap-frog development, with disconnected sidewalks and few amenities. 

Council committed to an aggressive Greenhouse Gas reduction target of 33% from 2007 levels by 2020, assuming that whatever we’re already doing will get us there. By 2010, our emissions had actually gone up by about 12%. This should be quite alarming to Council, but it seems like it’s business as usual and we continue to approve further sprawl, because “people need choice”.  I’ve seen plenty of communities  with a clearly defined urban boundary where people still have choice. It IS possible. True Smart Growth is not just about densification in the town core. As you may know, the trend is that more and more people now actually prefer to live in walkable communities, where schools, shops, restaurants and entertainment are close by, and where they have a choice of transportation other than the car. Many young people are, surprisingly, not so enamored with the idea of owning and driving – and paying for - a car anymore.  Yes, there are people who are looking for a more rural property. An yes, there are still lots of properties in Maple Ridge right now where people still have that country-feel. 

This development is actually closer to Mission than to Maple Ridge. It has a “walk score” of 2, which is pretty much as bad as it gets: it’s totally car dependent, there’s nowhere to walk to.  Only bus #C49 comes by on Dewdney, but only on weekdays, and only every 2 hours. 

From the Maple Ridge Financial Plan 2012-2016: "the Federation of Canadian Municipalities strongly encourages local governments to take action with regard to the infrastructure deficit, and demonstrate their ability to address the issue. They have provided a series of recommendations, a critical one being that “municipal governments must evaluate how they plan for growth, price their services, and generate revenues. A long-term plan, with targets and milestones, must be put in place to help phase in these changes over the next 20 years.” 

I would like Council to ask staff to do a cost-revenue analysis of different types of developments at different densities in different locations to help them determine whether or not this kind of sprawl is such a good idea. I think we all probably have a pretty good idea what the outcome is going to be, but it’s necessary to see the numbers (for Council as well as for taxpayers!). 

I would think a revision of the policy to allow 1-acre lots outside the urban boundary would make a lot of sense, as would a moratorium, until AND IF we are in a better position to subsidize this kind of development. 

This development application will be on the agenda again for the Council meeting on Tuesday, May 28, 7 pm.

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