Urban sprawl comes with costs


Advertise with us

You have probably heard this argument before: owners of newer homes on the edges of Brandon pay much higher property taxes than the rest of us. They are subsidizing the rest of the city, and deserve to have greater influence at city hall.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

We need your support!
Local journalism needs your support!

As we navigate through unprecedented times, our journalists are working harder than ever to bring you the latest local updates to keep you safe and informed.

Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Starting at $14.99 plus taxes every four weeks you can access your Brandon Sun online and full access to all content as it appears on our website.

Subscribe Now

or call circulation directly at (204) 727-0527.

Your pledge helps to ensure we provide the news that matters most to your community!


You have probably heard this argument before: owners of newer homes on the edges of Brandon pay much higher property taxes than the rest of us. They are subsidizing the rest of the city, and deserve to have greater influence at city hall.

And you’ve probably heard this one, too: the city needs to keep adding commercial and residential developments on its outer edges because the taxes they will generate will pay for the rising costs of running the city. That new tax revenue is essential to keep taxes lower in the rest of the city.

If you are a regular reader of this column, you will know that I disagree with those arguments. It’s elitist small-town snobbery when anybody argues that they are more important, or should have greater sway with our city council, simply because they pay more property taxes than the rest of us.

Beyond that, I have argued that new, low-density neighbourhoods aren’t the money-makers that developers, some city councillors and some chamber of commerce members claim they are.

For example, I have written that the planned residential and commercial development in the southwest corner of the city would result in higher infrastructure, emergency services and waste disposal costs for the city. It would likely force the city to build and staff a new fire hall, and a new fully staffed school would also likely be required.

It would cost taxpayers millions of dollars up-front, and millions more each year after that.

Do you really think the taxes and development fees derived from those new homes will pay for all those costs? I don’t, and my concern is echoed by an analysis by senior CBC business columnist Don Pittis that was posted on the CBC website earlier this week.

In that piece (“From ‘car-dependent hellscapes’ to green cities, Canadians find new ways to fight climate change — Nov. 21), Pittis wrote that “relatively crowded walkable downtown parts of a city produce huge amounts of tax revenue, whereas suburban low-density areas result in a net tax cost.”

He added: “What the tax productivity data shows is that ‘rich-people housing’ with big lots and plenty of room for cars, which were subsidized when the neighbourhood was developed, continue to be subsidized throughout their long existence. Suburban single-family houses on big lots simply do not cover the municipal expense of things like repairing all that asphalt and clearing all that snow.”

The analysis includes this quote from Halifax director regional planning Kate Greene: “A lot of our services are delivered on the linear foot, so the more you expand outward, the more pipe you have to run, the further your buses have to go, the further your waste delivery has to go.”

Along those same lines, Victoria Transport Policy Institute executive director Todd Litman wrote this in 2015: “We estimate that in total, sprawl costs the American economy more than $1 trillion annually, or more than $3,000 per capita, and that Americans living in sprawled communities directly bear $625 billion in extra costs, and impose more than $400 billion in additional external costs. This is economically inefficient and unfair: it wastes valuable resources and imposes costs on people who do not benefit from sprawl.”

Read that last sentence again.

If I listed Brandon’s five most-serious problems, that list would include our inability (or refusal) to learn from other cities’ experiences in addressing similar challenges. Instead of adopting strategies that have succeeded elsewhere, we stubbornly (arrogantly?) insist on “made in Brandon” solutions that are often many years behind the times and frequently cause more problems than they solve.

For example, while we continue to gobble up swampy farmland on the edge of the city for residential development, incurring millions of dollars in costs, cities such as Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have shifted to development models that add tax revenues, not drain them. They are growing up, not out.

Pittis has a warning for cities that are slow to follow the trend: “The suburban sprawl model persists in medium-sized cities and outside urban cores partly because they have not yet reached the saturation point, but also because the model, including subsidies from existing provincial taxpayers, offers lucrative short-term profits for developers. But as work by the Edmonton-based global design and engineering giant Stantec and others have shown, in the longer term, sprawl can lead to municipal government bankruptcy.”

Let those last few words sink in, because it reveals how dire the threat is. The more we grow outward, the more money the city will lose. The tens of millions of dollars that will soon be spent on lift stations and drainage improvements will be just the start of the cost spiral.

This form of “growth” is not sustainable. It’s a money-loser that will result in higher property taxes and/or service reductions for all of us. And if it continues, it could eventually threaten the city’s solvency.

None of this is a matter of opinion. It’s simple mathematics, and the numbers point to three obvious conclusions.

First, the people building the big houses on the edge of town aren’t subsidizing us; we’re subsidizing them. Second, the proposed new development won’t keep taxes down; the result will be higher taxes. Third and finally, if the sprawl doesn’t stop, it will soon be too expensive for most of us to live here.

» deverynrossletters@gmail.com

» Twitter: @deverynross

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us