Haliburton County CAO Mike Rutter believes communal water and sewer systems may be the missing piece to help leaders address the Highlands’ housing woes.

Representatives from Frontenac County explained the potential solution to County council Sept. 13. Staffers Joe Gallivan and Kelly Pender said the plan, which took around seven years to develop, has helped the municipality progress three housing projects they say will bring more than 200 units over the next few years.

Communal services are made up of shared drinking water and wastewater systems, servicing groups of residences and businesses clustered together. Currently, in Haliburton County, most new developments utilize municipal services, in Haliburton and Minden villages, or are on private systems.

“We will never have municipal water and sewer in Frontenac – it’s fiscally impossible for our four small municipalities to afford that kind of project. Just like in Haliburton, our settlement areas are small villages on relatively small lots,” Gallivan said. “Planners have to think 25, 50, 100 years ahead. It’s important we keep our villages sustainable long-term, and to do that we need to significantly add to our housing supply.

“We already knew we couldn’t keep doing what we were doing. We’ve been struggling to attract [investors] to Frontenac County,” he added.

Gallivan said the Ontario government updated its provincial policy statement in 2020, identifying communal servicing as the second most preferred system behind typical municipal services, and ahead of private wells and septics, for new developments.

How it works

Through the program, Frontenac staffers work with developers to identify buildable land. Because single communal systems can be installed at a fraction of the cost of individual units, and don’t take up nearly as much underground real estate, new subdivisions can be created quickly.

“One of the major benefits of this kind of a system in a rural setting is they are very scalable. The developer doesn’t have to build expensive infrastructure for 50 lots at the start of the process anymore – these new systems are almost like Lego blocks.

You can start with a system that can handle five, 10, or 15 lots, and expand on that over time,” he said.

There are environmental benefits too – rather than establishing multiple connections to an underground aquifer, communal systems require a single hook up. In terms of planning, Gallivan said communal services allow municipalities to fit more units on an individual lot – whether within high population areas, such as the villages, or more rural.

“We have situations in Frontenac where we have developments [proposed] in our formal settlement area boundaries around villages, and further away. They stand alone with no integration with existing subdivisions, but with the potential for more units, creating much-needed living spaces for people,” he said.

“There is no rental housing available in Frontenac, so this has been huge for us in helping to build our inventory,” he added, noting he saw no reason why Haliburton County couldn’t replicate the model.

“That’s the best thing about it – it’s very easily transferrable to any other jurisdiction in Ontario,” Gallivan added.

Once systems are installed, developers enter into an agreement with the municipality, stipulating the township will take care of any maintenance. In Frontenac, they are in the process of developing their own utility corporation to take care of any issues. He noted the failure rate of units is around three per cent, and that replacement parts are cheap and can usually be fitted by township staff.

Haliburton ‘fits’ model

Pender, Frontenac’s CAO, said the regional municipality hopes to have 10 new subdivisions, each with communal services, finished by 2033. He believes the benefits will be wide reaching. “This is the answer we’ve been looking for. Kingston is growing… we’re seeing pressures all over our community. We can’t continue developing on two acre lots. All our good lots are gone, the bad lots are difficult to build on, service, and maintain, so this opens up a lot of doors,” Pender said.

Echoing Gallivan, he said if communal systems can work in Frontenac County, they can work in the Highlands.

There probably aren’t two counties in eastern Ontario that are any more similar than Haliburton and Frontenac,” Pender said.

“So, if it fits well with us, I think it can fit well with you, too.”

Homeowners on the new lots in Frontenac will be charged monthly fees, expected to be around $125 a month, for water and wastewater services. “You’re in the same ballpark you’d be in if you needed to pay for new systems and amortize that over 20, 25 years,” Pender added.

Rutter said the most important facet of communal systems is how attractive they make potential build sites to developers.

“Lack of municipal water and wastewater really limits the intensity of development and increases the operating costs for developers… if implemented, this will make development in Haliburton County much more attractive,” he said.

“This could be one way we reduce the barriers that exist when developing housing. Municipalities are generally not developers. We can, however, stimulate the development of housing by allowing cost-effective servicing opportunities like this, reviewing land use approval processes to make it easier to do business in Haliburton County, and ensuring we use servicing systems that effectively protect the natural environment that we treasure. This model seems to check all those boxes.”

Warden Liz Danielsen said she found the presentation “really exciting.

“This offers some food for thought on how we can meet the challenges of housing here, particularly in places like Highlands East and Algonquin Highlands where we don’t have any servicing at all,” she said.

Rutter said he would be circling back to County council before the end of the year to see if there is any desire to pursue the concept.