Shifting urban boundary 'makes millionaires,' planning prof says

City council's decision Wednesday to add 1,281 hectares to the urban area could make certain landowners very wealthy, according to Queen's University's David Gordon, author of Town and Crown.

Some landowners stand to profit enormously from council's decision Wednesday

New homes are built on the outskirts of Ottawa in May 2020. (Kate Porter/CBC)

When a city's urban boundary moves an inch, people get rich, David Gordon says.

Gordon, author of Town and Crown, a history of how Canada's capital developed, points to how the former Nepean township allowed Barrhaven to become a residential area. Its reeve, Aubrey Moodie, later faced accusations of conflict in the 1970s when property he partly owned was sold for 30 times the original purchase price after only seven years, Gordon recounts.

A generation later, the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton granted an application by Terrace Investments in Kanata to rezone 100 hectares of agricultural land for urban uses so an NHL hockey arena could be built. It was part of a larger pitch to create an entire town around the rink, Gordon said.

"The very deep-pocketed developers have bought [rural] property decades in advance, far out. When you get those [properties] converted, they become the foundation of local fortunes," said Gordon, who is a professor at Queen's University's School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Now in 2020, City of Ottawa staff are recommending 1,281 hectares be added to house a growing population for the coming decades.

On the eve of city council's decision Wednesday, land owners just the other side of the line are indeed watching closely.

It's the same in all Canadian cities, Gordon says. When a city allows rural land to be used for urban development, it "makes millionaires." There's a lot of pressure, and likely "buckets of politics," he said.

Questions at committee

Already, councillors on the planning and rural affairs committees have supported the expansion in a 10-1 vote.

Among the 100 public delegations they heard from earlier this month were developers, as well as consultants in real estate, land economics and planning.

Coun. Shawn Menard didn't have a seat on those committees but asked several presenters if they owned land outside the boundary and stood to gain financially from an expansion. It was a question committee chairs Jan Harder and Eli El-Chantiry sometimes dissuaded him from asking.

"Do we look to invest in the future in Ottawa? Yes, and we do have land that will support that," answered Chris Collins, land development manager at Cardel Homes. 

Here’s why Ottawa’s urban boundary is so important

3 years ago
Duration 1:06
The city’s planning department wants to add up to 1,650 hectares of land to the suburbs, expanding the urban boundary to do so. But community groups say that could increase greenhouse gas emissions and create urban sprawl.

Menard later explained to CBC News that presenters are not required to disclose their financial interests. 

"If I know someone else is going to gain financially and it's going to cost me on my tax bill to have that financial benefit, that should be known," he said.

"Even though there's nothing wrong with trying to benefit financially from these things, it should colour the situation ... instead of just saying all these people are totally objective and what they're saying about expanding the boundary makes perfect sense."

What's in, what's out

Council has yet to be shown a map of properties likely to be urbanized. That list will only be compiled by late fall, and only if council approves the expansion.

But it's easy enough to find some candidate parcels.

A motion by Eli El-Chantiry means agricultural resource areas should be off the table and not even scored for inclusion. Set aside wetlands and other protected natural areas, and the focus turns to "general rural areas."

Schedule A of the current official plan shows Ottawa's existing urban boundary in black. A motion by Coun. Eli El-Chantiry means the city would not consider expanding into orange-coloured 'agricultural resource zones.' The pink 'general rural areas' and light orange 'rural natural features' lands will be scored, with many points awarded for being close to future rapid transit. (City of Ottawa)

When one adds the points a property gets for proximity to future rapid bus or rail lines, some areas in Kanata and near the Trillium Line to Riverside South come to the fore.

Then there are areas on the fringes of suburbia that recently lost agricultural status when developers won appeals to downgrade them to simply rural: a few hundred hectares on the northern side of Barnsdale Road in Barrhaven, and south of the Avalon and Summerside subdivisions in Orléans, for instance.

A motion by Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley also gives a few extra points to lands within 1.9 kilometres of park-and-ride stations, and near roads that have exclusive transit lanes or traffic signals. A landowner in the Fernbank area came out to show his support for that idea.

There's even the option of creating an entirely new suburb, a case made by John Smit, a former high-level city planning manager who now works for a consultancy.

"Not including a focused area for urban expansion might be cutting ourselves short in terms of finding the right answer," Smit told the committees earlier this month.

'Sophisticated' calculations

Gordon gives city staff credit for doing their homework. He said they've made sure to come up with a plan that meets provincial rules for how much developable land Ottawa has in supply, a plan they can defend.

Gordon studies and works with cities across Canada and says few have such sophisticated inventories of the land that sits vacant, as well as the land that could be intensified in older areas.

Some rural lands councillors expect might be absorbed in an urban expansion include the southernmost area of Barrhaven, seen to the left, north of Barnsdale Road. (Kate Porter/CBC)

"Council's under tremendous pressure from all directions to include this type of greenfield development land at the edges, and you need excellent technical analysis in order to resist that pressure," Gordon said.

Laws have changed and council's decision can't be appealed, but the minister of municipal affairs and housing could always get involved.

"The first round of fight is going to be at the city council level, but I'm sure the losers are going to go over the heads of council and try to make influence at Queen's Park," predicted Gordon.


  • A previous version of this story said Coun. Allan Hubley represents Kanata North. He represents Kanata South.
    May 26, 2020 11:33 AM ET


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

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