Suburban expansion costs increase to $465 per person per year in Ottawa

Infill development is known to be much cheaper for cities than adding new subdivisions, and City of Ottawa staff have shared estimates for how much the municipality saves — and spends — depending on where development happens.

City's updated estimates show it ends up ahead by $606 for high-density infill development

Construction crews work on the roof of a new home in Ottawa's west end this past May. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Infill development is known to be much cheaper for cities than adding new subdivisions and City of Ottawa staff have shared estimates for how much the municipality saves — and spends — depending on where development happens.

The city had Hemson Consulting Ltd. review a major study it had done and update some numbers from 2012 to reflect how city costs and tax bills have changed over nine years.

Hemson found it now costs the City of Ottawa $465 per person each year to serve new low-density homes built on undeveloped land, over and above what it receives from property taxes and water bills. That's up $56 from eight years ago.

On the other hand, high-density infill development, such as apartment buildings, pays for itself and leaves the city with an extra $606 per capita each year, a financial benefit that has grown by $151.

Capital ward Coun. Shawn Menard asked city staff to provide costs of expanding the urban boundary ahead of an important vote on Ottawa's new official plan later this month.

"It's indicative, and mirrors what we've seen in the past, that expanding the urban boundary is extremely expensive," said Menard, on seeing the Hemson update released as part of hundreds of pages of documents for the official plan.

Many people living inside the Greenbelt offset the costs of those living outside of it, he said.

"We will be significantly subsidizing those costs as people move out and out and out, and we see more sprawl," said Menard, who added the figures don't even reflect environmental costs.

Full analysis to come later

Analyzing the costs of expanding infrastructure to new developments is a tricky, detailed job that requires a lot of data, and city staff cautioned this Hemson update was only done at a high level.

The update also offers alternative estimates based on a competing report commissioned by local home builders back in 2013. Brought up to date, its figures suggest high-density infill development benefits the city by $831 per person per year, while homes on former fields provide $189.

This map in the proposed new official plan captures the areas that will be added within Ottawa's urban boundary. (City of Ottawa)

The executive director of the Greater Ottawa Homebuilders Association, Jason Burggraaf, pointed out many factors could also affect the new estimates. Building homes for people isn't a luxury but essential, he added, and the growing population can't be housed entirely in existing neighbourhoods.

Ottawa city council has set targets to house 51 per cent of the 400,000 residents expected by 2046 through intensifying existing areas — seen by many on council as an aggressively high number — and 49 per cent through homes on previously undeveloped land.

The city will complete a full analysis of the costs of future infrastructure only after the official plan is approved.

This hasn't happened sooner because council sped up timelines for the new official plan, and didn't ask for such analysis. Instead, staff scored rural land based on how close they were to such things as transit and water pipes.

Staff scored the lands for a future Tewin suburb poorly given how far they were from such existing infrastructure, but council went ahead with it anyway, and staff have since drawn up wording to hold land owners to a promise to cover those costs.

"The expansion we're making is a long-term decision," said Menard. "We're about to pass a new official plan. I don't know that [residents] know it's about to cost them hundreds of millions, and into the billions, of dollars."