As the exodus of urban dwellers into the countryside increases, residents of towns like Embrun and Limoges are cautiously observing the impact on their small communities.
“Again, people can work from home, buy here for a lot less than they sold their home on Alta Vista for, and realize all the amenities and schools are here…it’s pretty easy to sell,” says Remax real estate agent Joanne Clemens . “Usually it was the busy spring market and the busy autumn market. When COVID started, no one wanted anyone through their house, so (they) postponed the offer. So when that first spring market started and the buyers were gone, supply was tight. Hence the insane seller’s market that started then and has been on and off ever since.”
The national census published earlier this year found that Embrun’s population grew nearly 25 percent to 8,680 between 2016 and 2021, while nearby Russell grew 22 percent to 6,135. On the list of cities in Eastern Ontario with at least 1,000 inhabitants, they ranked first and third in growth. Their rate of expansion was more than double that of Ottawa, the fastest growing of the nation’s largest cities.
Frank Nieuwkoop owns Valecraft Homes, which started a subdivision in Embrun about 10 years ago. He says it’s a very good market.
“While construction costs in the city are similar, it could be $150,000 to $200,000 less in land costs here. Embrun is still growing – there’s a new plaza, major food chains and you’ll see the growth continue thanks to affordability and attracting more services,” he says, adding that Valecraft recently purchased more lots for a 10-year supply of land.
But while city dwellers are eager to stretch their legs and budget their sights on communities east of Ottawa, existing residents have their own concerns.
“People are moving here because the cost of living in the city is ridiculous,” reads a social media comment from an Embrun resident. “They can get a lot more bang for their buck by buying in a small town. Then, inevitably, the city follows them. The town is becoming more and more unaffordable because the market is booming. The city amenities begin to appear and multiply and eventually the city becomes another extension of the city they left. It’s a vicious circle.”
The numbers confirm this. According to the Ottawa Real Estate Association, the average resale price of homes last year in Embrun was $626,500, a 107 percent increase from 2016. In Russell, prices averaged $650,000 — a 91 percent increase.
David Coletto, founder and CEO of Abacus Data, believes a “perfect storm” of conditions means more millennials are migrating from urban areas to greener pastures, with a lack of affordable housing being one of the driving factors.
Coletto spoke with members of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association at a breakfast meeting in March.
“If you have two kids and make $200,000 a year in a household, chances are you don’t want to live in a 900-square-foot apartment in downtown Ottawa…that’s what we’re seeing in the future. data,” notes Coletto.
While growth has its benefits, some Russell Township residents are concerned with balancing housing and commercial projects with agricultural and environmental impacts.
In a recent survey, Eco East, a nonprofit that originally stood up in 2010 to oppose a mega landfill project, found that 51 percent of respondents said preventing urban sprawl was one of the top environmental concerns, while 73 percent deforestation and loss of natural habitats.
“With unprecedented growth, protecting farmlands and wildlife areas is essential,” said Eco East president Lisa Deacon. “Development continues towards single-family homes on small lots with a preference for distance from greenery and amenities and clustered multinational big-box commercial options.
“Eco East recommends designing community hubs, which are dense, walkable and provide adequate communal space, including gardens and parks, within already established city limits. Reviving high streets, including local small businesses, is an important part of this vision ”, adds Deacon.
The citizens’ committee in Limoges did approach large grocery stores to build there, but was told that the catchment area was not large enough.
A new system will also be commissioned to bring water from Cheney to Limoges, meaning the city can continue to grow. However, infrastructure extensions are expensive and complicated to plan, involving many players.
Stacey Murphy suggested a splash pad for Russell. “The growth and interest in Russell has been amazing and I think the community is really at an important transition point,” she says. “Unfortunately, I have seen that the municipality itself does not seem to have the resources, nor the knowledge and understanding of what this growth means for community development, particularly on the park and recreation side.”
Rural municipalities often have small budgets but large geographical areas. Additional development, for example, generates more traffic, which shortens the lifespan of the infrastructure. This year’s budget for Russell Township includes $2 million for paving just about 10 miles of the more than 190 miles of paved roads. Jonathan Bourgon, executive director of infrastructure, said an additional $2.4 million has been budgeted for other road works, plus major investments in sidewalks and bridges.
Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux acknowledges potential problems but is excited about the changes.
“With growth comes growing pains… but we have the resources and infrastructure to meet these challenges.