Fear for the future of our small rural village

by Margaret Prophet
(Midhurst, Ontario, Canada)

This is the small creek that will be the receiver for the wastewater - projected 10.6 million litres daily on full build

This is the small creek that will be the receiver for the wastewater - projected 10.6 million litres daily on full build

What is a sustainable future for a small village of 3,500 that is primarily estate lots, agricultural land and forest and located just 15 minutes from the outskirts of a city?

Our township has done studies to show growing the creative sector, supporting agriculture and small business is the way to go. Unfortunately, included with that plan is building city services (including a brand new, state of the art wastewater treatment plant) into our community as well as increasing our population by 800%! They feel that if they have the services, the employment will come, but I think that argument doesn't hold up. If this was the case, then our closest neighbour (Barrie, ON, Canada) that has a plethora of industrial, commercial zones, city services and many more people would have low unemployment. In fact, they had the highest unemployment rate in Canada in 2011.

There must be a way to maintain the rural village, supporting local farms and green spaces without high density housing, right?

Currently, we are fighting this forced urban sprawl (since the development does not expand on current housing projects, just leap frogs into farmland), but council is convinced that the development charges and increased tax base will be a long term benefit. We see the cost of increased infrastructure, increased services to this small city, loss of agricultural tax base and employment as well as environmental impacts as huge detriments. For that reason we're trying to have it stopped, but our council is adamant it is in the best interest of our community!

So what can we do to convince them and our residents that our community can have another future than submit to urbanization?

Editors' Thoughts: Ultimately this is a question that only your community can answer, although a consultant able to research your particular situation could provide you with some clues.

What we can do is to provide a few questions that you might want to think about and call to the attention of your neighbors, allies, and the council.

Before the questions, we can't resist one observation. That is a really good-looking little creek, so let's hope that the new wastewater plant operates flawlessly in perpetuity. That rarely happens, folks.

OK, maybe your village could consider these questions:

1. Is there a compelling economic reason to tinker with the existing land uses and economic base? In other words, is the fiscal situation of the village or township so dire that the environmental and quality of life gamble of permitting and prospecting for more development is really worthwhile?

2. Is there a substantial or meaningful unemployment problem? If so, that complicates your environmental argument, as a practical matter.

3. Is the village powerless to resist? If the sprawl from the city is moving relentlessly in your direction, and if your provincial law and the law that the judiciary system makes through its rulings is too weak to allow you to prevail if a developer sues to enforce the right to develop, is it worth fighting against new development? Might it be better to try to get out in front of that development and shape it to your benefit? This may be what your village is perceiving.

As an opposition group, you may want to argue with those assumptions. Another way to "get out in front of" your future is to plan a future that preserves the rural way of life.

4. Is the stance of the village simply a bit of a knee-jerk greedy reaction of the "bigger must be better" variety? If so, try to refocus on the semi-rural quality of life you now enjoy and to question whether you really need "more" employment, "more" income, "more" housing, "more" infrastructure and services, in order to be complete. People in power tend to want more power, but sometimes they should stop to consider whether the prospect of more self-importance is worth risking the community's quality of life.

If you are prosperous and able to provide adequate services now, you may well be better off keeping the population at its current level.

However, we have to say that generally by the time a village has 3,500 people, the public sector will be more efficient economically with 15,000 or more.

So values other than economics, and especially public sector economics, may have to be invoked in order to change this council's collective mind.

5. If you are primarily estate lots, forest, and agricultural land now, how are the estate lots seen as not being urban sprawl? We're sure you won't like this observation--can't blame you--but it's an honest one.

A flip-side question you will like more is whether a typical suburban density would destroy the very agricultural and rural character that make your community an attractive place to live.

6. How can the beauty of your community be preserved? This is a great stand-alone question for you and your neighbors to ask repeatedly because it takes the focus off the policy debate between development and no development.

Research shows that loyalty to a community depends is influenced considerably by the residents' perception of beauty, whether that is natural beauty or architectural. We think you have natural beauty. Check out this research on community attachment.

We hope these questions and observations help a bit.

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