July 17th, 2024

‘Strong Towns’ about new thinking: Clark

By COLLIN GALLANT on February 4, 2023.

New subdivisions and urban sprawl will be discussed as a key issue in a new "Strong Towns" community action lab process the City of Medicine Hat is taking part in. The two-year urban planning exercise kicks off Tuesday with a public meeting at the Esplanade.--News File Photo

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

A two-year exercise in city planning and operations doesn’t mean a hard ‘no’ to new suburban subdivisions in Medicine Hat, Mayor Linnsie Clark said Friday, but will ask residents to consider a shift in thinking toward the costs of development and growth.

Clark won the 2021 election promising to attach and publicize “long-term liabilities” of outward development to proposed communities.

Late last year, council approved participating in a “community action lab” guided by “Strong Towns,” a U.S.-based think tank on municipal issues that argues suburban growth is generally unsustainable. That gets underway on Tuesday next week with an open house at the Esplanade for community members who register to learn more about the initiative.

Two more sets of meetings and work at city hall will continue through 2023, with action expected next year.

The basic question is whether the tax assessment gained from new construction or redevelopment is enough to cover the added costs of servicing those new properties over time, and especially once major road or sewer maintenance is required decades into the future.

“Strong Towns doesn’t say you can’t grow out, but requires us to do the math on those developments to make sure we understand what the financial implications are to the community,” Clark told the News, admitting a “shift in thinking” will be presented to Hatters.

“Roads and critical infrastructure that will need to be replaced is counted mostly as an asset, but our liabilities are growing,” she said.

“As we replace them, we need to find money to do that … it’s called a growth ponzi scheme because typically cities pay for this with more growth, but that only adds to liabilities.”

Strong Towns also provides suggestions for operations, transportation and economic development planning, and would also suggest new approaches to city communications, citizen engagement and fostering community groups.

“I hope people come with a curious mind, because it will be an interesting conversation,” said Clark.

Several reports to city committees over the years denote that no property tax class covers its costs, with the low density residential developments performing the worst.

But, new single-family house construction is considered a barometer of economic health, and for years municipal politicians and city critics have called for increasing the assessment base as a way to combat a structural budget deficit without raising taxes.

Developers contacted by the News this week said they are interested to take part, but see their industry as key to achieving its goals.

Edmund Li, of Coulee Ridge Development in the city’s southwest said he hopes the discussion includes all areas of city costs, promotes development and doesn’t key on any one sector.

“The general concept of utilizing existing infrastructure makes a lot of sense in some communities,” he said, but argued the current work along that avenue focuses on major centres with new investment in mass transportation, such as Calgary and Edmonton.

“They are investing in light rail transit, and those areas should be developed, but that doesn’t make sense in smaller cities.”

Clark as well said things like roads, sewer mains and water lines on the outskirts of the city are overbuilt to accommodate future growth, and getting more residents on those systems is also a nod to sustainability.

But she sees having a range of lot sizes in mixed commercial to better recover costs as key.

In some ways new work would be an extension of the 2020 updates to the municipal development plan, a document that creates a framework and philosophy for the planning department and other planning documents to work from.

It suggested intensification of existing neighbourhoods in specific “urban transects” would increase tax assessment without adding major costs of building new roads of utility systems, or expanding the services, like transit, snow clearing or fire department coverage.

When more homes or businesses are built or improved, the overall value of the assessment base increases.

City budget covers costs, like road and sidewalk maintenance, by adjusting the tax rate against the total assessment to get a set amount in the budget.

Adding more accounts, while avoiding costs, would generally lower the tax burden to the overall tax base, especially compared to adding assessments that are coupled with new costs.

As well, said Shawn Champagne, a city planning superintendent, new policy will grow and build on the 2020 development plan, which includes some of the “Strong Town” points already, mainly that the city would be stressed financially to upgrade aging infrastructure in central communities while also expanding outwards.

“When a new community is built, it’s great for the city because its brand new infrastructure is paid for by a developer,” he said. “But, over time that needs to be maintained.”

The municipal development plan lays out four areas that could be primed for redevelopment and intensification, such as Northlands, downtown, the area around the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital and the Medicine Hat Mall, in the south. Priority growth corridors are Kingsway Avenue, Division Avenue S. and Trans-Canada Way.

It also suggests limiting new greenfield subdivision approvals until lot inventory falls below a five-year forecast of lot sales.

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