Weak council, weak decision


Following the Oct. 19, 2009 municipal election, it was clear that Iqaluit voters had chosen a weak, inexperienced group of councillors to serve them over the next three years.

Just last week, at a meeting held July 20, Iqaluit residents got a chance to see how weak they really are.

That was when the entire council, with the notable exception of Coun. Romeyn Stevenson, wilted before a small group of homeowners from the Plateau subdivision who demanded, with little justification, that council say no to a modest commercial-residential development on a large lot that has sat empty for far too long.

In doing so, council voted in favour of individual selfishness and against the public interest.

If this is the kind of decision they are likely to make in similar situations in the future, it does not bode well for Iqaluit, especially when you consider the nature of the demand and the empty claims that homeowners made to support it.

Claim number one is that the proposed building would reduce property values. But in Iqaluit, there is no evidence to support the idea that the market value of any building has ever been diminished by the construction of another building nearby. Market values for property in Iqaluit, especially single-family houses, are influenced by supply, which is low, and by demand, which is still fairly high.

But even if this claim were valid, it’s not an issue with which council ought to concern itself. Those who invest in property to increase their personal wealth do so at their own risk. Part of that risk is that the value of their property may fall, for whatever reason.

And if any given person’s investment in private property turns out to have been a bad idea, they have other options. They can sell their property, then invest their cash in other things, such as bonds, stocks, GICs, mutual funds or businesses. Or, they can decide to absorb the loss and enjoy their home for its own sake.

In any case, it’s rarely in the public interest for municipal governments to protect people, especially affluent homeowners, from market fluctuations in the value of property. If they did, rational planning would be impossible.

The Plateau homeowners made other claims to support their demand, all of which are either trivial or groundless.

Some people, for example, complained their “views” would be obstructed. But at least two of the people who wrote to the city about this didn’t actually know the location of the lot in question. This, however, didn’t stop them from complaining about losing their “views.”

Other Plateau homeowners claimed that the proposed development was “enormous” and therefore unsuitable for the neighbourhood. Sorry, but a two-storey structure is not “enormous.” Neither is a 16-unit apartment complex, or three modest commercial spaces for businesses.

Healthy neighbourhoods are mixed neighbourhoods, combining businesses, offices, playgrounds, apartment buildings and single family homes. Filling entire neighbourhoods with big, resource-guzzling single-family lots for spoiled yuppies to build their dream homes is no way to plan the future of a diverse community like Iqaluit.

And in a high-cost Arctic town like Iqaluit, sustainable development means high-density development — because high-density development makes the most efficient use of expensive roads, water mains and sewer pipes.

Many homeowners also complained that the proposed development was “commercial” in nature, and that they would prefer an “institutional” building instead.

In Iqaluit, this is often a distinction without a difference. One of our most beautiful “institutional” buildings, the one that houses the legislative assembly, is also a piece of commercial real estate. It’s owned by a private developer and leased to the Government of Nunavut. So are many other institutional buildings.

Besides, small businesses are almost always an asset to the neighbourhoods where they are located and to the local economy. So are private rental units. Carried far enough, narrow attitudes of the type displayed by Plateau homeowners could one day threaten the economic development of Iqaluit.

And, of course, by blocking this development, councillors deprive the city of an estimated $100,000 a year in tax revenue and several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lot lease payments. That lot lease revenue, by the way, is the means by which the city repays the money it borrows to develop new subdivisions. This is why it’s in the public interest for the city to find revenue-producing properties for all the lots it develops.

A single financial setback like this won’t likely harm the city. But a series of such ill-considered decisions could shrink the tax base, forcing the city to impose higher taxes on all existing ratepayers to make up the difference.

Iqaluit City Council put on a disturbing display of weakness last week. Let’s hope they don’t make a habit of it. JB

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