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Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Village and Hamlet Growth
This article is a continuation of a previous article on maintaining sustainable growth in rural counties. The premise is that if we can increase the number of kids in the county, the county will sustain itself. In this article we will discuss the pros and cons of expanding existing villages and hamlets in an attempt to entice families to move to these small urban centers. We will also look at some of the issues we would face when trying to expand these small urban centers.

If we want to increase the size of existing hamlets or villages in order to increase the number of families in the county, we need to examine what the obstacles to doing this may be. We should also consider why hamlets may not be attractive to young families or why they may not succeed regardless of the effort put into promoting them. The idea that existing hamlets are natural growth nodes may not be correct.

In order to attract families to hamlets, we must meet several conditions.

            The lots and houses must be more affordable than those in towns and cities that have more amenities or they must offer something that the bigger urban centers cannot. Sometimes, this is just a larger lot or the pleasure of small town living.

            There must be a method of earning a living either locally or within commuting distance.

And there will be a number of items that help persuade the family to move to this particular village.

            Proximity to schools that meet the requirement of the kids.
            Proximity to family or friends.
            Proximity to churches or other social infrastructure.
            Proximity to sports facilities that meet the goals of the kids. (Or the goals parents have for their kids)
            Proximity to amenities such as groceries, drug stores and eateries.

We need to ask ourselves, why would anyone want to live here rather than in a bigger town or actually out in the country. One or more of the above will be required to make the move attractive to the family. People do not just up and move to a hamlet or village.
There needs to be a reason why they would move to what is essentially the same lot and house as in a city or town but with less amenities. If the village does not provide some of the above, people will just stay in the larger urban centers with more amenities.

Lower cost of living can be a major draw to these small urban centers so if we want to expand the hamlet; we need to make sure that the lots are affordable and the taxes competitive. For a lot to be more affordable than in larger urban centers, the cost of developing these lots must be less then in the bigger town.
The cost of a new lot is the sum of the cost of the acquisition of the land plus the cost of developing it plus the cost of a return to the developer. There is not much that a county can do about the prevailing cost of land but they do have a lot of control over the cost of developing it.

The cost of adding five or six lots to an existing village or hamlet is not as high as doing a larger town site but still requires some investment.
It may also require rezoning and subdivision bylaws, which take time and money to obtain.
The standards that the county sets for the development has a dramatic effect on the final cost of each lot. If the county insists on developing the hamlet lots just like a town lot, the costs are going to be too high. On the other hand, if the county does not set the standards high enough, the developer will be happy but the end user or the county rate payers may have to pay more for the ongoing maintenance.

The following are some of the items that the county and the developer need to consider.

Stormwater management
If the surrounding area is suitable, maybe they don’t need a large stormwater management infrastructure. If the development is in lowland or the development is very flat, some means of stormwater management will be required.

Potable Water
This can be either private wells or municipal water mains. Many areas can sustain a water-well for each lot but not all areas can.

Hamlets and small villages can seldom afford the cost of installing municipal sewage treatment facilities so most often private septic systems are used. Due to the small footprint of the lot, it is essential that advanced treatment units be used to pretreat the sewage. This will go a long way to prevent the contamination of the ground water.
If the soils are suitable, a relatively small area is needed for septic treatment however we may need a little more land then was originally called for when hamlets were serviced by the little house out back.

 If we look at 1/4 to 1-acre lots as a minimum size for self contained hamlet lots, we still have a substantial amount of roadway to develop. If the County standards call for paved streets complete with curbs and gutters, these costs will probably prevent the development of lots.
The smaller the lots, the more lots you have to share the cost of the road, therefore the cost of each lot will remain more affordable if we can put more lots along the same amount of roadway. All lots do not have to be the same size.
Most older hamlets where not developed with paved roads but had the streets paved later, either by way of local improvement tax or at the expense for the general taxpayer base.

The most cost effective way of developing or extending hamlets is to allow smaller lots, serviced by their own water-well and septic treatment system. With self-contained lots, the developer is spared the cost of water and sewer infrastructure.
This also means there is no ongoing general ratepayer cost to maintain water and sewer services. The savings to the County adds up to tens of thousands of dollars each year if the county does not have to maintain sewer and water treatment plants and pipelines. In areas where municipal water systems already exist, it may be cost effective to tie into these lines but care should be taken not to fall into the bigger is better way of thinking. The high cost of developing municipal systems can often be offset by provincial or federal grants but the maintenance cost fall back to the local ratepayers. We often see large pipe municipal infrastructure fall into disarray because sufficient monies are not budgeted for maintenance!
If the area to be developed meets other criteria but does not have good soils for private septic systems or if there is a desire to have smaller lot sizes that may not have sufficient land area for septic systems, small pipe septic treatment systems are usually more cost effective than large pipe systems going to a municipal treatment plant. These are sometime referred to as STEP (septic tank effluent pump) systems.

If the hamlet already has a natural storm water management plan, that is, if the storm waters can naturally flow from the streets to an adjacent stream or wetlands, there would not be a need for a more extensive storm water plan than can be done with well graded roads and grit and oil separators. Sometime retention systems need to be in place to prevent flooding during high volume rain events.
We need to consider if the roads need to be paved, as this is another large cost component of developing lots. Both paved and gravel roads need ongoing maintenance. As a rule, roads that have low daily trip counts are easier to maintain as gravel. There are a number of studies that suggest that roads with fewer than 200 trips per day would be more efficiently served with a gravel surfaces.
If the hamlet is strictly residential, there should not be a lot of heavy traffic on these roads.
As most hamlets would have low speed limits, dust would not be a large issue.

If the roads were just well based gravel roads, the cost of the development would allow for the sale of lots that are more affordable. This of course does not mean just laying a few inches of gravel on top of prairie soils.
The roads would have to be properly built up and based.
Should the traffic volumes increase due to further expansion of the hamlet, these well-based roads would not be exorbitantly expensive to pave at that time.

So when we look at which hamlets might be good targets for adding affordable lots, we need to look at several issues.
We want soils that allow for private sewage treatment facilities on each lot rather then piping sewage to a treatment center. These cannot be sloughs or areas with high restrictive layers. Soils-based septic treatment systems cannot be developed on soils with high ground water or soils that have been disturbed or trucked in.
Areas that are marginal farmland are seldom suited for village lots or private septic systems.
We need to be assured that the area has sufficient ground water of good quality to develop private wells rather then incur the high cost of treating and piping the water unless the hamlet already has a municipal water system. Hamlets that already have municipal systems, either water or sewer or both, that are in good shape, would be natural areas to look at expanding.
We should look for hamlets that have natural storm water management areas. If we can deal with the stormwater without incurring the expense of curbs, gutters and large pipelines, we have a chance of keeping the cost of the lots reasonable.

Additionally, we should look at what the neighbourhood already has or needs. Is there a commercial/industrial area nearby that needs a source of labour? Are there schools, medical facilities nearby? Is there a possibility of a convenience store in the neighbourhood?
Maybe we need to accept that not all hamlets or villages can be saved and concentrate our efforts on those with a higher chance of success.

To avoid making the situation worse, we should look at some things that we should not do.
We probably should not look to establishing any new hamlets.
We should not try to expand villages that really have no reason to exist. When the tracks got pulled up and the elevator torn down, many hamlets lost their reason to exist. Maybe there is some other industry or employment center that could be put into these scenarios but let’s not just wish. In other words, we need to look carefully at each hamlet or village and make sure there is a reasonable chance that adding lots or commercial areas will increase their viability. If there are already empty buildings or lots, adding more is unlikely to help. If we want to save that village, we don’t have to add to it, we need to find something to fill up the space we already have available.

We should not expand hamlets into sloughs or lowlands. It really does not matter how passionately the developers plead their case, it is a losing proposition. The council has to have the guts to say no. Yes, in the big city, these sloughs are developed all the time. We have to understand that this is done by big developers, with big equipment and deep pockets. Furthermore, these big city developments are done all at one time because the developer has the financial ability to do so. More importantly, these developers have the reasonable belief that they will recoup their costs and make a profit based on big city lot prices. 
It is unlikely that a county developer will be able to realize sufficient return on their money if the slough is properly developed. If a slough is developed, it will have disturbed soils; so according to the Alberta Private Sewage Systems Standard of Practice, private septic systems may not be developed on these lots.
These areas should be used as part of a stormwater management plan while the higher grounds are developed into residential lots or light commercial areas. These low lands can be developed as natural stormwater management areas and also be developed as an environmental asset.
This might require that several landowners get together to propose a development so that both high and low lands are available for the project.

We need to be aware that hamlet and village lot prices cannot approach the cost of town lots or they will not be in demand. We also have to understand that some people may prefer the ambience of small town compared to the big city but most people who want to move to the country are not thinking of villages. They want a place with three to five acres. They also may prefer some privacy that small urban centers do not provide.

Increasing the size of existing small urban centers can definitely increase the amount of kids in the area, but we need to make sure the lots are affordable to young families otherwise these families will not relocate to them.
These smaller centers could sustain slightly higher lot prices if they are targeted to those who would like to retire there and age in place. These people often have the where-with-all to afford more lot and would be attracted to areas of the county that are close to medical facilities.

We hope to publish more articles on county sustainability in the future so please click the subscribe button to stay in touch.


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