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January 01, 2014

Not so sleepy now

Calgary’s outlying towns become the centre of attention for home builders

Karen Durrie

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The dwindling availability of serviced land in Calgary along with the increasing consumer demand for more choice of products and price point have helped to drive a veritable building boom in communities outside the city.

Airdrie, Cochrane, Chestermere, Okotoks and other outlying communities are reaping the benefits, as builders look to these areas because of more readily available land and a speedier approval process.

And consumers looking for new homes can often find the same models for less in these areas.

“Typically homes cost a little less in these communities, however people are also finding lifestyle choices that better match their needs,” says Derek Squirell, executive vice president of corporate development at Jayman, which started building in Airdrie and Cochrane eight years ago.

These lifestyle choices may include wanting an easier or shorter commute, the desire for a smaller community, and the availability of a variety of new home products.

Jayman, for example, builds a full range of homes in Cochrane, including laned lots and semi-detached homes in Riversong, townhomes and apartments in Sunset Ridge, and move-up and estate housing in River Reach.

“Raw and developed land in the outlying communities is less expensive than Calgary, so this savings is reflected in house pricing. Our customers in Cochrane and Airdrie enjoy the small town atmosphere and on the business side, municipal authorities can process development approvals faster and this allows us to bring housing product to the consumer in a more timely manner,” Squirell says.

There is also a growing demand for entry-level and move-down products in these communities, he adds.

Jayman has already invested $7 million in their various developments in Cochrane over the past few years, seeing the enormous growth potential in the pioneer town. More such moves will likely be seen from other home builders in the near future.

Bridget Sellers lived in Calgary for 30 years before moving to Airdrie recently with husband, Adam Murtha.

Murtha grew up in a small town on Vancouver Island, and found Calgary very hectic, so the pair decided to move to get a small-town feel, but still remain close to family living in the city.

“The people we know who live in Airdrie all seem to love it. So we thought it would be a great place to eventually raise our kids when we have them,” Sellers says.

The price tags in Airdrie didn’t hurt, either, Sellers says, noting the homes they saw were a bit cheaper than the same types in the city, and you get more for your money.

Sellers traded her job in southeast Calgary for one in Airdrie after the move, and Murtha’s commute to his northeast job takes just 20 minutes each way.

The couple also feels they’ve been quickly embraced in Airdrie.

“Everyone I met has been so friendly. We meet more of our neighbours in the first few weeks of living in Airdrie than we did in our old (Taradale) house which we had for four years,” Sellers says.

Daphne Harris and fiancé Hal Paddock feel the same way about living in Chestermere. The pair recently moved there after living in McKenzie Towne. They felt the urge to move after mounting frustration over lengthy commutes to their jobs both via road and public transit — so frustrated by the arduous process that both would end up in bad moods by day’s end.

Both Paddock and Harris, new parents to baby Olivia born in August, grew up and went to school in Chestermere, and after looking at homes in their price range in between downtown Calgary and McKnight Boulevard decided to return to their roots.

“The difference was staggering. We bought a beautiful nine-year-old 2,300 square-foot house in Chestermere, and in the area that would have worked for our commutes in the city, we would have been able to afford a 1,000-square-foot, 1960s home with no updates,” Harris says.

The growth that Chestermere has seen since she lived there is another bonus, Harris adds, with more restaurants, shopping and services nearby, plus Chestermere Lake, which both enjoy for boating and beach days.

And their nightmare commute is becoming a distant memory.

“It’s changed dramatically. I drive less than 10 minutes to Sunridge Station and have a quick zip downtown. Hal takes 16th Ave. almost all the way to work. We are literally 20 minutes from downtown, and I can’t even say that about the south of Calgary.”

Developers are constantly scouting for good opportunities to provide for what the market is looking for, says Karin Finley vice president of community development — Southern Alberta for Qualico Communities and chair of the Urban Development Institute.

“If anything has changed over the years, perhaps it’s the opportunity in the outlying communities. There is a lot more acceptance to growing those places almost as quickly as a Calgary would grow in terms of percentage of growth. Places like Airdrie, Okotoks and Cochrane are focused on becoming more self-fulfilling municipal entities and they offer a lot of the same services Calgary used to offer exclusively,” Finley says.

Qualico owns quite a bit of land in the Municipal District of Rockyview, the Langdon area, and is currently building in Airdrie and Okotoks.

What Finley calls a pending land supply shortage in Calgary is indeed a factor that goes into builders looking to neighbouring communities to develop, but it’s also a matter of people simply wanting the choice to live in a smaller place, and the level of affordability and larger lot sizes that often go along with it.

“Typically, it is more expensive to live in the city because it has more amenities. It has a well-developed arts program, a number of schools, more choice of communities, a well-developed transit system, and you probably accept a commute for groceries,” Finley says.

The advantages for builders doing business in smaller communities include quicker approval and permit processes — with the various approval stages, a development in Calgary can take an average of five years to break ground — sometimes more lenient land use bylaws, and jurisdictions eager to provide growth opportunities.

“They see it as an economic positive, so they are promoting more growth through residential and commercial development. The city of Calgary has policies that it wants to shift growth from the periphery to the inner-city,” Finley says.

The building industry is seriously concerned about a land supply shortage in the city, Finley says, and it’s something that builders feel about two years before the average homebuyer starts to feel it.

“We are having to buy land in outlying communities to stock the shelves. The buying public isn’t seeing their choice is limited yet. But our industry is projecting that’s coming, and their actions are already trying to mitigate that. It’s absolutely going on.”

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