How HRM’s anti-sprawl policies foster more sprawl

Richard Stevenson, one of the province’s top water and sewer engineers, spends a lot of time thinking about how the province can cope with its crumbling municipal infrastructure. He has come to the conclusion HRM’s stringent regulations governing development actually work against the stated goals of the city’s planning department.

HRM espouses a policy of increasing the density of the urban core, but its own planning regulations result in lower population densities.

  • R-1 single family zoning limits population density to 20 persons per acre, or 45 persons per hectare (to protect us against barrio-like overcrowding, I presume).
  • The city also requires that we design the number of single family serviced lots based on a minimum housing density of 3.35 persons per household.
  • The math is simple and leads to a maximum house count of about six houses per acre.

Census Canada’s records show the actual R-1 housing occupancy in the Halifax Census Metropolitan Area is less than 2.8 persons per single family lot, or 16.8 persons per acre—only 83.8% of their intended density.

The same problem applies to duplex, townhouse, and multi-unit  developments within HRM. Actual housing unit occupancies are all significantly lower than the design numbers.  This may seem like a small matter, but it results in fewer occupants per acre, less taxation per acre for HRM, less revenue from water and wastewater rates, lower utilization rates for all infrastructure systems, and larger infrastructure systems, which are all based on the prescribed planning occupancies.

It also results in more expensive building lots for the residents and larger mortgages per home. The developer of the residential subdivision is limited in the number of lots or units he can build, and therefore the cost per unit must increase.

If we want higher densities in our urban neighborhoods, we should adopt housing occupancy design targets that more closely approximate our falling census figures, especially since the size of the family unit appears to be falling as the baby boomers retreat to smaller residential arrangement, and their descendants stagger under the costs of maintaining the municipal infrastructure they are inheriting.

We have come to understand that we are unabl

;e to afford to expand our municipal trunk infrastructure or to fix what we have currently. Perhaps a more realistic set of population design densities would be a good first step toward increasing the density of our urban communities and making more efficient use of our expensive municipal services.

[Disclosure: Richard and I are old friends; that is, we’re both old, and we’re good friends.]