Developers may have ‘no choice’ but to increase density in Chelsea Quebec

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by Mark Burgess on June 17, 2010

The Municipality of Chelsea has provided price estimates for developers’ share of the proposed sewer and water system, and the costs could lead to a dramatic increase in density.

The cost is broken down by engineering firm BPR between existing and future sectors in documents obtained by the Low Down. Developers have been assigned 63 per cent, or more than $9 million of the $14.3-million price tag in the latest plan for the water and sewer system.

The disparity is even more pronounced for just the water system, where future sectors will pay 77 per cent of the cost. The current projections split the $14.3 million total cost between $7.5 million for water and $6.8 million for sewer.

Chelsea Director-general Paul St. Louis said developers have “no choice” but to increase density in order to make housing affordable.

“If you are developing with infrastructure, you have to hand down the cost to the potential home owner and there is probably a critical number that needs to be reached for it to become feasible,” he said.

But some are concerned that the burden to developers could come at the expense of Chelsea’s recently tabled visioning report, which recommends no “radical” changes to the municipality’s “small, rural village character.”

Common Ground developers Sean McAdam and Carrie Wallace say their share of the infrastructure project could force them to build more than 550 units on their Old Chelsea Road property west of the A5 as opposed to the 110 they proposed. They also say their plans for an organic farm and affordable housing could be jeopardized.

“Our concern is that as a community we find ourselves in a position where the infrastructure is informing the visioning,” Wallace said.

The water and sewer project was not dealt with in the visioning process, which involved extensive public consultation, despite several queries at the March 27 meeting. At two public meetings in late April, several residents expressed concerns about the infrastructure’s implications to the visioning report, which hadn’t then been released.

Visioning Committee Chair George Claydon said the infrastructure was never part of his committee’s mandate. He said their purpose was to present to council an idea of how residents want their villages to look – how to make it happen is up to engineers, he said.

Claydon said his report provides advice for the council’s use when thinking of questions of sewer and water.

“Unfortunately for council it was not that black and white,” he said. “People want a rural village but that doesn’t necessarily mean one thing or another for the provision of services. More work is needed to figure that out.”

Meanwhile, Common Ground is left to figure out how to adjust for the costs. The future development sits on 110 acres of land but McAdam said he plans to develop fewer than 40 acres, leaving room for an organic farm and extensive green space. Because the municipality’s cost-sharing is based on land mass, and not building units, Common Ground will be charged for more than half of the developers’ sector that includes Le Nordik and Chelsea Creek.

Common Ground received conditional approval for development last month. In order to receive final approval, the municipality provided a list of items to be included, such as affordable housing, guaranteeing the sustainability of the organic farm and market, providing a trail plan and analyzing seniors’ needs for subsidized housing.

St. Louis said that without the sewer and water infrastructure, “affordable housing and seniors’ housing just won’t be able to exist.”

But McAdam is concerned about making the units affordable. With the new expenses plus the local servicing of pipes, he said he’s looking at an $80,000 cost per unit for the water and sewer.

“That doesn’t include land, it doesn’t include building costs,” he said. “It’s completely unaffordable. So we would be looking at 550 units to get us where we are now.”

McAdam said installing his own septic and well system would only cost $20,000 per unit.

Warren Major, who plans to develop the Oasis Chelsea seniors community in New Chelsea, is in favour of a collective sewer and water system rather than individual systems across various developments. He also thinks costs can be lowered, though.

“The municipality hasn’t found the winning formula for water,” he said, although he thinks they’re near  one for the wastewater.

Chelsea Creek developer Marc Shank also favours a municipal system, and thinks “a global solution should be cheaper than a stand-alone solution.”

McAdam said a communal utility makes sense if the costs are right and he’s hopeful that the estimated cost will be reduced.

“I think we all know that this is unaffordable,” he said. “Happily, the municipality and the business community all seem to recognize that this is unaffordable. So we are collectively looking at more affordable alternatives.”

St. Louis, however, thinks the current price is as good as it will get.

“I think we’re pretty much at rock bottom,” he said.

Chelsea Commerce President Todd Evans – whose organization voted in favour of “exploring water and sewer” – hasn’t seen the cost estimates but said his own support for the infrastructure depends entirely on whether or not it’s affordable. Evans said Chelsea businesses “are all over the map” in their support for the project but that most like the idea if it makes fiscal sense.

“The sewer is the thing we need,” he said. “Water is sort of an add-on if it makes sense.”

Reach Mark Burgess at mark@lowdownonline.com