A $3 Billion Boondoggle: Regional Planning and Sprawl in Halifax

HALIFAX – On April 30th, HRM regional council unanimously approved a $823 million operating and $165 million project budgets for 2013-2014, for a total of close to $1 billion in spending. Several budget items were hotly debated, including the restoration of late night ferry service to Dartmouth, a fare increase and increased spending for transit, and a residential tax increase to expand snow plowing service.

One issue that was not directly addressed in the budget was the growing cost of urban sprawl in HRM.

Yet the very next day, HRM made public a report by Stantec Consulting which made it clear that sprawl could cost the HRM and its residents around $2.8 billion over the next 18 years.  Yes, billion with a “B”.  Surprisingly, there has been much less public debate around this report than over much smaller line items in the budget.This report, with the lengthy name “Quantifying the Costs and Benefits to HRM, Residents and the Environment of Alternate Growth Scenarios” is actually an interesting read for anyone following issues around taxation, spending and development in the HRM. The $2.8 billion price tag actually dwarfs the budget itself.  Yet nothing in the budget is likely to significantly change that cost, because that cost is tied into issues around how and where development takes place in Halifax, which is dealt with in the HRM regional plan.

The Regional Plan is a 25 year blueprint outlining “where, when and how future growth and development should take place in HRM.”  All planning strategies, policies and regulations should flow from the regional plan.  The current regional plan was passed in 2006, and runs until 2031.  Although we are 7 years into the plan, we are only just now completing the first 5 year review of that plan.

One of the key targets in the plan is for population/housing growth.  It was expected that the HRM would add 100,000 residents over 25 years, and that 25% of this growth should take place in the urban core (the Peninsula and downtown Dartmouth), 50% in the suburbs, and 25% in rural areas. That growth was to be concentrated in a number of growth centres located throughout HRM, where it could be easily and cost effectively serviced.  Those targets are actually quite modest compared to other cities (Victoria, for example, has a target of essentially 90% within existing serviced areas).  But they are a starting point in combating the urban sprawl HRM has been experiencing.

Yet, in the first 5 years of the Plan, we fell short of even those modest targets.  Only 16% of growth took place in the urban core, while 56% took place in the suburbs, and 28% in rural areas. Indeed, one of the main issues raised in the review is the failure to reach these targets.  What the Stantec report shows is that failure to achieve our targets comes with a very real cost to the municipality, and ultimately to the taxpayer.

Stantec was asked to look at what would happen to municipal tax revenues, service costs and other costs of living in HRM if we reach our regional plan targets (the “RMPS Goal”), versus what would happen if we stay on the current path of 16% urban growth (the “Base Case”).  Stantec also looked at two other scenarios: if we increased targets to 40% urban, 40% suburban and 20% rural (Scenario A); and if we increased the targets further to 50% urban, 25% suburban, and 25% rural.  They also considered certain health and environmental outcomes under all 4 scenarios. Their findings are very clear, and very striking.

As Stantec states in the report summary: “Results of our analysis clearly show the benefits of concentrating new residential development.”  In other words, under current development patterns, the cost of providing municipal services often exceeds the amount the municipality receives in property taxes, leading to spiralling service costs, and rising taxes.  It also results in higher transportation costs, utility costs and other costs for citizens.   Concentrating growth (or densification) means the HRM can provide municipal services more cost effectively to residents, leading to lower spending, lower taxes, and more money for improved services.  It also decreases various economic costs to residents, making living in the HRM more affordable.

The report found that if we are able to get back on track and meet our RPMS targets, this will save the HRM and its residents close to $655 million over the next 18 years.  However, if we were to raise the bar and increase our targets under Scenario B, the savings are closer to $2.8 billion.  This breaks down to $148 million a year, which lowers the cost of living for all residents.  The municipal portion could be passed on in the form if improved services, tax relief, or both.

The report goes on to say that for nearly all services assessed, Scenario B (50% growth in the urban core) is the best option.  Scenario A (40% growth in urban core) is second best, although ranks first on transit use (mainly because more people walk under scenario B).  Sticking with our current RPMS targets was the third best option, and the status quo ranks dead last in almost every category.  The study also found that concentration of growth under Scenario B provides better health and environmental outcomes.  The study further showed that increased walking and transit use meant shorter commute times for all users of our roads.

To date, our Regional Plan has not proven up to the task of concentrating growth in the HRM, and this carries huge financial, economic, environmental and social costs. Yet some municipal staff continue to resist changes to the regional plan that would help us get back on track. Citizens of the HRM, whether they want lower taxes, better transit, less traffic, or more greenspace, should be concerned, if not outraged, that the HRM knowingly and blindly continues to follow a failing development path.

Fortunately, it is not too late to change our course.  The 5 year review process is ongoing: the plan is under review by the Community Design Advisory Committee, and a revised plan will soon be coming back to the public for final consultation, before going to council for approval.  Groups like Our HRM Alliance have been working hard to propose solutions that address sprawl and build a more liveable, sustainable HRM.  The public can have their say by attending a CDAC meeting, speaking at a public consultation, or contacting their councilor and urging them to support measures that will increase densification.

Changing our residential growth patterns will lead to a more sustainable HRM, financially, economically, environmentally and socially, now and in the future.  It is ultimately up to us, the citizens of the Halifax Regional Municipality, to make that future a reality.  A better city is in our grasp.