Although St. Albert council may ultimately have little say in regional density targets, the issue nonetheless sparked an impassioned discussion in council chambers Monday night.
Councillors unanimously approved a motion to receive the Capital Region Board’s proposed Growth Plan 2.0 as information at the Aug. 29 meeting, but several expressed concerns over what it will mean for development in St. Albert.
Coun. Cathy Heron, who sat on the committee tasked with putting together the growth plan, explained that at the committee’s final meeting Aug. 18, it had approved the plan. The final draft will go to the board for approval Oct. 13.
The growth plan, which sets the direction for growth in the capital region on a 50-year horizon, includes controversial mandatory density targets for new developments in the board’s member municipalities.
The current density targets, set in 2010, call for 30 dwelling units per hectare in St. Albert. That number will increase to 40 under the new plan. She explained there will also be other changes, including limits on new country residential subdivisions and protection for prime agricultural land from development.
“It was important for pretty much anyone on that committee to have that agricultural focus,” Heron said.
If the board approves the plan Oct. 13, it will then go to Municipal Affairs for approval and, ultimately, will be binding on all municipalities in the region.
Councillors Sheena Hughes, Cam MacKay and Bob Russell all expressed concern about what the implication of higher densities and a push for more mass transit would mean for St. Albert.
Hughes gave a lengthy presentation. She said she had hoped to give the presentation prior to the capital region board voting on the density numbers July 14 but was unable to get it on the agenda.
She questioned the value of the increased density and the so-called “smart growth” included in Growth Plan 2.0.
Hughes said the growth plan threatened the well-established character of St. Albert for ideological reasons, suggesting the plan comprises the “recycled ideas” and “failed policies” of smart growth over the past 40 years.
Hughes said the policy would create an artificial land shortage, driving up housing prices and making it unaffordable for people to buy the kinds of houses they want.
“In spite of smart growth propaganda, people still want to live in single family houses,” she said.
She cited several sources, including a story posted to the website of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in the U.S., to bolster her argument that smart growth doesn’t work.
But ultimately Hughes appealed to the loss of choice in housing as the main driver for why she was opposed to increasing density targets.
“My goal is for my children and my grandchildren to have a better quality of life than we enjoy, and to be able to afford a single family home to raise their children if they choose,” she concluded.
Russell said he supported everything Hughes had said, adding the growth targets set out bolster his own concerns about setting this kind of inter-municipal growth agenda without a solid 80-year growth plan in place for St. Albert.
MacKay said he felt as though the process is essentially out of council’s control, but argued the biggest problem is by forcing suburban municipalities to increase density to higher levels than currently exist on the outskirts of Edmonton, the growth plan would ultimately create a density “jelly doughnut.”
He also noted the plan calls for more mass transit in specified transit corridors, but makes no mention of the impending advent of driverless cars on public roadways.
“That one technology will revolutionize how we’ll look at transportation, both public and private,” he said.
Mayor Nolan Crouse said he had had his own reservations about increasing density, which is why he voted against a 45-unit/hectare target in favour of the 40-unit/hectare target. He said he felt increased density was inevitable based on the support from the other board members.
“I would say that one of the reasons that I was being supportive of slightly higher density was really trying to be a team player amongst the Capital Region Board,” he said.
Coun. Wes Brodhead said while he appreciated the impassioned arguments about the topic, he took issue with the Cato Institute arguments Hughes cited.
“I appreciate their perspective,” he said. “I’ve read a lot of reports as well that would bring those points into debate.”
He went on to argue there are examples of limitless growth gone awry, such as in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, where few limits were placed on growth, and as a result a lot of good agricultural land has been paved over.
In response to MacKay’s argument about autonomous vehicles, Brodhead said driverless cars won’t necessarily address the problem of single people in each vehicle, which is a big issue the growth plan is trying to address.
Heron concluded by pointing out one of the main goals of the growth plan is not to reduce housing prices, but rather to reduce the “enormous amount of money” municipalities must pay to build and maintain infrastructure for low-density developments – the higher the density, the lower the per-unit cost to provide infrastructure.