It’s easy to understand why someone who owns hundreds of acres of rural land would want to split it up and sell it to someone looking to build a house. Or why residents on a busy street want four-way stops to interrupt traffic.
It’s also easy to understand why politicians don’t want to get into a fight with taxpayers during an election year — even when the two situations above make for extremely bad policy.
And for councillors to defend the ideas by saying it’s what the residents want is a terrible message to send. We elect people to lead and to make smart decisions — even when we don’t like them — not tell us what we want to hear.
The four-way stop sign issue is one, I’m sure, councils in cities all over deal with. I remember having small children when I lived on Winchester Avenue in Sudbury, and the sounds of the moronic drivers screaming up my street, in a mystifying hurry to get from downtown to the South End, made my blood boil.
But installing four-way stops on streets where they make no sense is bad policy.
Last year, over objections of staff and of traffic studies, four-way stops were installed at Bouchard Street at Marcel Street; Lansing Avenue at Melbourne Street; Hawthorne Drive at Westmount Avenue; Madeleine Avenue at Main Street; and, Madeleine Avenue at Alexander Street.
City planners and traffic experts will tell you four-way stops make sense at intersections with heavy traffic volumes. But when you have a busy road intersecting with one that isn’t, a four-way stop slows traffic flow, frustrates drivers and encourages people to ignore the signs — precisely the kind of bad driver behaviour people want to stop.
Residents like them because they feel like they’re slowing traffic, even if that’s not supported by actual observation. A much better approach is — wait for it — traffic calming, but the effects are subtle and therefore less visible to residents.
But narrowing the road, as has been done on Attlee Street, for example, forces drivers to slow down, but not stop unnecessarily. It should be a win-win, but somehow the debate got sidetracked.
The rural lands issue is a bit more complicated. In a nutshell, after decades of unchecked development, the Official Plan enacted in the late 1970s funnelled development to areas with existing, underused infrastructure.
We’re still paying the price of those decades of sprawl in our billion-dollar infrastructure deficit — yes, that’s a one and nine zeroes — and every time a watermain bursts and shuts down a section of the city. And without the Official Plan, things would be much worse.
The losers, however, are rural property owners who can’t split up and sell their land to whomever they want. Some own hundreds of acres in places like Azilda and Hanmer, and as property values have doubled in the last 15 years, they would make a substantial profit if they could sell some real estate.
But with plenty of land still zoned for residential development, and with only modest population growth on the horizon, there is no good reason to create more space for houses that will only cost us more to service.
If we’re serious about fighting climate change and getting the infrastructure deficit under control, we’re going to have to get used to living closer together in more compact communities, using more public transit and fewer cars and trucks.
So what to make of the recent decision by the planning committee to support much looser restrictions on splitting up rural lots?
There were attempts to make it an freedom of choice issue. Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac, who is more than a little passionate about this issue, pointed out during the debate that we don’t live in a communist country.
True, but I also hope we live in a country where sound arguments carry the day over bad — albeit well-intentioned — policy.
Darren MacDonald covers city hall and politics for Northern Life.