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Saturday, 28 April 2018

Do Self-Standing Townsite Make a County More Sustainable?

Self-Standing Town-sites

This article is a continuation of previous articles 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 building self-standing town-sites. It is assumed that a town-site will contain a relatively large amount of kids.

The costs of developing multi-unit subdivisions are very high, so developers tend to want to do villages or towns, preferably with golf courses. This way the cost of the development can be spread over many units and sometimes the golf course is able to subsidize these costs or at least provide financing for the town-site through membership sales.

Apart from the costs of obtaining the land and subdividing it, the primary costs are road infrastructure, power, water and sewer services and stormwater management. If there is no existing nearby infrastructure to tie into, these costs can be too high to be sustained by lot sales.

Most self-standing town-sites will require roadways that are well built, complete with curbs and gutters. In any development with more than a couple dozen lots, the day trips that the roadways will encounter will be in excess of 200 trips per day. It would not make sense to use gravel roadways in these developments.

Due to the density of the housing, a municipal water system must be developed, either from a local, high producing aquifer or more often from surface water. There must be sufficient water for both potable use and firefighting. As this is a municipal water supply,
the system must meet provincial standards.
A building must be maintained for treatment and water must be piped to each lot for potable use and down the streets for firefighting.

For sanitary sewer services, most of these developments will use large pipe sewer infrastructure. This requires large diameter pipes in the streets or alleys that receive the sewage from each individual house.

As big pipe systems need to be accessed and cleaned, manways complete with covers must be install at frequent intervals. These are not watertight, so when designing the treatment plant additional volumes must be calculated to account for surface water entering this infrastructure.
These big pipe systems transport the sewage to a municipal treatment facility where the sewage is treated and returned to either the local aquifers or more likely to a local waterway that will remove these resources away from the source locality.
STEP (septic tank effluent pump) sewer systems are routinely used in many areas of North America, to service developments with up to several thousand housing units. The advantage of a STEP system for collecting sewage is that the solids remain in each homeowner’s septic tank and only the effluent or liquids are pumped to the final receiving area. This is done with small pipe, two to four inches in diameter, force mains. This means they do not have to be graded for gravity.
These STEP systems have been used in Alberta for a number of years now with good results. They are more cost effective than large pipe systems and usually the effluent is discharged back into the local ground water reservoirs.
Apart from their considerable savings in start up infrastructure costs, STEP systems are also more environmentally friendly than big pipe systems. These systems often site-treat the effluent and usually discharge to either local groundwater or wetlands.

The effluent can also be used to meet the irrigate requirements of golf courses and other public spaces. The ability to restore the source water back to the local environment goes a long way to offset the environmental impact of towns.

Storm water management systems are required to prevent flooded neighbourhoods or streets. The runoff waters from the streets are usually directed by the curbs and gutters to of some type of primary treatment and then discharged into local streams, canals or rivers.
Unfortunately, this removes water from the local watershed, depleting the local groundwater aquifers. Solutions that return the stormwater to the local environs should be considered.

In some cases, the county will allow the developer to start the sale of lots and a building program before all infrastructures is complete, so that the developer has cash flow from the sale of lots and homes to fund the completion of the development.
There is good logic in doing this as it saves some financing cost that must otherwise be applied to the cost of the lots at resale.
This method of financing the development is not without risk to the county and or the lot purchaser. If something goes wrong and the developer cannot finish the required infrastructure, those that have already purchased housing in the development may be left without the required services and have to come up with the money to complete the services.
These people of course look to the county that allowed this to happen for financial aid.

Unfortunately, the cost to the county in which these town-sites are developed is very high. Even if the county does not contribute any actual monies to the development and tries for full cost recovery on all oversight issues, this seldom happens. Staff time and the cost of hearings etc. simply cannot be met by way of development fees.

If the development is a success, it moves on to a self-governed town, depriving the original municipality of any chance to recoup the cost through long-term taxation. If the development is not that successful, there may be ongoing costs to the county by way of services and maintenance that cannot be covered by the tax-base of the development.

We also need to consider the cost of connectivity to the highway systems. If the town-site is developed on a secondary or primary highway, road access support may be reasonable.
If however, the town-site is developed on county roadways, the ongoing cost of maintaining these roads will use up a considerable portion of the taxes generated by the development. If the town-site goes on to self-governance, the original county will still be stuck with the road maintenance without any tax-base to support the costs unless this can be negotiated at the time of separation.

High-density town-sites also increase firefighting costs. Unless the county mandates some type of firefighting as part of the development approval, the county must provide the fire protection. As a rule, these are small lots with close adjacencies in the location of the homes. This provides for high fuel loads with a high risk of spreading to neighbouring houses, just as in the big city. Volunteer fire staff cannot be expected to handle these situations. These situations can be mitigated to a certain extent by development and building regulation such as internal sprinkler systems, fire resistant exteriors and closed soffits.


As a rule, the county has little to gain by allowing the development of self-standing town-sites. There is much short-term pain and little long-term gain. From the county’s perspective, there are better ways to increase revenue and resources.
In spite of some drawbacks to self-standing town-site, they do provide the children needed to sustain the surrounding municipality. Sometimes these town-sites can provide the schools, churches, arena etc. that the surrounding areas need.
This can be a real benefit IF the adjoining municipalities can get along and work to a common good. It does not work if the cities and towns want to lord it over the rural municipalities.
If the town-site is designed with jobs in mind, commercial areas could be developed as part of the urban infrastructure as the town-site is designed. This would make the self-standing town-site more useful to the county than if the town-site is just designed as a bedroom community.

The author Bob Boersema is a senior private sewage system designer, specializing in small lots and difficult soils inventories. He lives in the south central part of Alberta.
            “Every home deserves a treatment system that meets the intent of the SoP.”
Bob is also a building designer and contractor with a perchance for energy efficiency. Not only does he understand the SoP but has a good working knowledge of all building codes.
            Bob may be contacted at or www.

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