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No such thing as a no-grow zone

As with many communities, Woolwich is expecting the pace of growth to slow next year. The 2.5 per cent increase in assessment forecasted is the lowest in the past five years. The slowdown has everything to do with the economy, with similar effects in Waterloo Region and beyond.

When the economy turns around, we can expect development to pick up, as none of the municipalities has policies in place to halt growth and sprawl. In keeping with the province’s Places to Grow strategy, municipal governments are implementing ways to control and channel growth, but populations will continue to climb. This despite increasingly common complaints that new arrivals and new units cost the municipality more to service than is returned through property taxes and assorted fees – that’s one of the rationales for large hikes in the region’s development charges, for instance.

Dan Kennaley, Woolwich’s director of engineering and planning, says the township is happy to tightly manage growth through its staging policies.
Dan Kennaley, Woolwich’s director of engineering and planning, says the township is happy to tightly manage growth through its staging policies.

Projected growth is also the impetus for infrastructure projects such as the proposed rapid transit plan for Waterloo Region, which includes a $710-million light rail link between Conestoga Mall in Waterloo and Fairview Park in Kitchener.

If there are so many downsides to growth even in this area, where the problems haven’t reached the levels seen in larger areas such as the GTA – overcrowding, crime, poor integration, congestion, pollution and the like – then why not put an end to it? Why do we need to keep growing?

There is no definitive answer, it seems, but many explanations.

“Is growth always a good thing? That’s the question,” said Mark Seasons, a professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo. “The need for growth is an article of faith – a firmly established part of our culture.”
But why that is quickly becomes a little murky.

At its root, growth helps cover the demographic changes, he posited. An aging population means new entrants are needed to replace retirees in the workforce, and to pay for services such as pensions and health care costs. Growth also keeps communities healthy by providing space for new employers and new business opportunities.

That pragmatic approach extends to the financing side of expanded government services and new infrastructure projects: you need more users to pay for them. It can become a spiral that feeds on itself.
Growth, then, is only a good thing if it has a positive impact on quality of life factors for the people who live in communities, Seasons suggested.

“Growth can be detrimental if it doesn’t achieve those goals.”

Therein lies the rub, as existing residents may not see more traffic, higher taxes and the like as making their lives better.

But can we simply say ‘enough’ and put an end to growth?

“I’ve never known a community to be static – you can’t just close the door,” said Rob Horne, Waterloo Region’s commissioner of planning, housing and community services.

It’s unrealistic to stop growth and, to his mind, undesirable. For Horne, the real goal is to control development so that the pros outweigh the cons.

To that end, the region’s growth management plan pushes for infilling development to increase the densities of the urban cores, discouraging more suburban sprawl, so-called greenfield development. The strategy includes rapid transit to encourage people to leave their cars at home, thus reducing the demand for new roads and prompting more of us to live in higher density housing in urban cores and along transit corridors. That, in particular, is the reasoning behind the light rail transit (LRT) scheme.

Many of those concerns are much smaller in Woolwich, however, given the size and rural nature of the municipality.

Population forecasts for the region see relatively small changes for the townships. The region’s population is expected to grow to 550,000 by 2016, reaching 700,000 by 2040. In Woolwich, over the next 10 years the population is expected to grow by 4,240, requiring 1,820 new residential units. Over 20 years, those numbers are 9,061 and 3,570 respectively. Percentage-wise, the numbers are significant, but the overall impact will be relatively minor by comparison to the problems coming in the cities.

Dan Kennaley, Woolwich’s director of engineering and planning, sees the township, and indeed the region, in a more positive light than what’s in store for communities in the GTA. In the township, a longstanding policy of managed growth – new housing allocations are tightly controlled, allowing for development to be phased in – has established the framework other communities are now trying to put in place due to Ontario’s Places to Grow directives.

The population and development targets outlined for the region and Woolwich specifically are manageable, he said.

“I’m quite comfortable with what is being proposed right now.”

As with all planners in the area, he sees growth as inevitable; controlling it will be the real battle, though it’s already been largely won here, he suggested.

The preference for managed growth is shared by chief administrative officer David Brenneman, who sees Woolwich in an enviable position because of its established policies and its future prospects: most of the new employment-land development is going to take place in the township.

The region’s growth strategy calls for the bulk of new expansion – greenfield development – to come on the east side, predominantly in Woolwich. The bulk of suitable open land falls around the airport and to the north.

The move to boost the supply of available industrial land is a regional focus, rather than a Woolwich-specific need. With an existing supply in the township, there is no pressing need to develop the Breslau-area lands for strictly local purposes. Under the region’s timeline, development of new industrial land would begin to the south, in an area surrounding the intersection of Fountain Street and Middle Block Road in Cambridge. Stage two would be slightly to the north, on hundreds of acres engulfing the Region of Waterloo International Airport. The third stage would involve land surrounding Breslau itself, while stage four would see the development of property northeast of the village, along Hwy. 7 and Shantz Station Road.

That potential holds plenty of interest for Brenneman, who sees no way of halting development, but wants only “managed growth” in Woolwich.

“A situation with no growth whatsoever is just not feasible,” he said. “You have to have some level of growth.”

He does, however, recognize that providing services to newly developed areas is more costly than is recouped by the expanded tax base.

Ironically, large estate homes on country lots are the most profitable for municipalities, he suggested. Typically built without water and sewer servicing – they use wells and septic systems – such developments place few burdens on infrastructure while returning healthy amounts in property taxes. But that’s directly opposed to growth plans that dictate higher densities in existing urban cores.

For UW’s Seasons, those density goals can be good for the region’s townships, as the policy protects agricultural land and helps maintain a hard boundary between urban and rural areas. He advocates growth that comes in tight circles around the existing centre as opposed to being strung out along highways.

“Growth can be good, but it can also be a negative thing,” he said, noting development is most often driven by those who stand to profit from it, so good public policy tempers that with plans that benefit the community.
While developers are often eager to build out a subdivision as quickly as possible, said Brenneman, it’s better for the community to stage the growth, allowing the infrastructure to keep pace. In the long run, that policy – a staple in Woolwich – benefits builders too: avoiding the boom-bust pattern of growth that can be seen in other municipalities.

Although the housing market has taken a hit in this economy, builders in Woolwich continue to do a steady business because supply has not outstripped demand, he explained.

Elmira, which has a tightly controlled building limit, has been the most active site for residential development. St. Jacobs, where growth is also staged, has very limited opportunities now because of a lack of capacity at the wastewater treatment plant. In Breslau, the site of two major residential subdivisions of 475 units each, there is currently no staging policy, but that may change as development of the employment lands draws closer, Brenneman suggested.

Before that time, Elmira will again see the most significant development in the form of the Guelph-based Lunor Group’s plan for up to 1,400 residential units on some 180 acres on the north side of Church Street West, adjacent to the Elmira Farm Service site.

With policies that position it to cope with that kind of growth, Woolwich will continue to manage development as it has in recent years, said Kennaley. The goal is to ensure new construction benefits the whole.
“Growth is OK providing it’s well managed – it’s a planning cliché, but the idea is sound. Good growth is about enrichment, with more things going on in the community.”

More development, it seems, is coming, whether we like it or not. And with it more people, more houses, more traffic and all those things associated with growth. Only time will tell if the “managing growth” strategy works – if the positives outweigh the negatives. Either way, however, by the time we know, there’ll be no going back.

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