Sunday 2 November 2014

The Fiscal Case for a Rural Municipality (2014)

North Saanich is at a crossroads.  Development pressure presents NS residents with a stark choice:  re-commit to our rural-residential and agricultural identity, or continue down the road to urbanization.

Proponents of high-density development claim that more people to “broaden the tax-base” will keep taxes low for all residents.  This is not true.  Development has proven repeatedly to increase taxes. Rural municipalities typically have lower tax rates than their urbanized neighbours.

The reason for this is simple:  urban densities require urban amenities and infrastructure.  When people live in urban areas on small lots, all the activities and recreation that don’t take place on their own property depend on publicly funded infrastructure.  They require roads to go where they need to go, transit to get there, parks in which to walk and play, soccer and baseball fields for their kids, rec centres in which to swim and skate and work out – all paid for by taxes.  Urbanization also needs infrastructure like sewers, sidewalks, gutters and streetlights – that’s why it makes sense to keep urban densities in urban areas like Sidney, where the infrastructure already exists.

A look at Metchosin and Langfordneighbouring municipalities with strikingly different visions, dramatically illustrates the point.  Metchosin has elected to remain rural, and enjoys low taxes and small municipal staff costs.  Langford has chosen to pursue development, has much higher taxes, and the attendant infrastructure costs.  In fact, with developable land in Langford disappearing, so are the Development Cost Charges that municipalities count on to fund the building of new infrastructure. There are now reports that Langford is looking at tax increases to cover the cost of their aging infrastructure.

Increasing industry in NS will also bring further pressure on “available” land for more housing. Even if developers bear the initial cost of infrastructure, maintenance and replacement are permanent municipal costs, which is why residents in municipalities like Langford are facing increasing tax bills. 

Much of the industrial development in NS is on ALR land at the airport.  With approximately 1/3 of the NS land base in the ALR, residents who value our agricultural resources and food security should be concerned about the recent actions by the BC government that undermine the integrity of the ALR, and the targeting of agricultural land by land speculators.

Does industrial use of NS land even make sense?  The Sidney North Saanich Industrial Group (SNSIG) has indicated that their prospective employees cannot afford to live in NS on what the employers are willing or able to pay, which is why SNSIG has asked for a change to our Official Community Plan – ostensibly to pave the way for more options for their employees.  However, the recent projects that have been executed or approved do not provide any price options that are not already available in NS and Sidney, and reports of the “take-up” by local employees are lacklustre at best, with 65% of employees unable to afford the options that have been offered through the new urban densities in NS.  Furthermore, Robin Richardson, Scott Plastics’ Vice President of Operations, admitted in Douglas magazine recently that Scott is already experiencing “serious issues regarding manufacturing space”, and hinted that manufacturing may move “offsite”.  Clearly, putting our eggs in Industry’s basket is risky.

Contrast this with our agricultural potential, especially in this time of threatened food security, and serious and continuing drought in California.  Annual gross farm receipts in NS are twice the Vancouver Island average, indicating strong agricultural potential for NS, especially given our mild climate and broad range of agricultural products.  Gross revenues for NS farms have grown by 212% over the last 20 years Coupled with the fact that the agri-food sector is the second largest growth sector in the CRD labour market, a rural-agricultural vision seems to make more sense than ever. 

The whole point of sound regional planning is to emphasize diversity and match land uses to their best potential use and most appropriate locations.  The best use of agricultural land, particularly in NS, is agriculture.

Recent actions by our Council majority allowing development on our rural-agricultural land jeopardize the future of agriculture in NS.  As long as land speculators believe that they will be able to subdivide agricultural land, they will buy it, sit on it until it looks unused and perhaps overgrown with brush and blackberries, and then claim that it's not productive agricultural land, so "it’s perfect for development.” We’ve already seen this happen with the Canora Mews development and the rezoning of the Reay Creek Meadows development.  This further drives up the price of farmland, making it unattainable to young farmers.

The cornerstone of the NS Official Community Plan is “to retain the present rural, agricultural and marine character of the community”.   NS residents face a choice between two opposite visions in this election:  urban densities that will lead to loss of farmland and increased taxes; or preservation of a rural-agricultural identity, which, coupled with low taxes, is the jewel that is North Saanich today.

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