Rural residents greet influx of homebuyers with mixed emotions

Rural homes
New residential and commercial developments are springing up in traditionally rural regions east of Ottawa. Photo by Candice Vetter.

As the exodus of city dwellers to rural areas intensifies, residents in towns such as Embrun and Limoges are cautiously observing the impacts on their small communities.

"Once more folks could work from home, buy out here for a lot less than what they sold their house on Alta Vista for, plus realize all the amenities and schools are here … it’s a pretty easy sell," says Remax realtor Joanne Clemens. “Usually it was the busy spring market and busy fall market. When COVID began, no one wanted anyone through their house, so (they) delayed listing. So when that first spring market began and the buyers were out aplenty, the supply was tight. Hence the insane sellers’ market that started then and has continued on and off ever since.” 

The national census published earlier this year showed that the population of Embrun grew by nearly 25 per cent to 8,680 between 2016 and 2021, while nearby Russell expanded by 22 per cent to 6,135. On the list of Eastern Ontario cities with at least 1,000 people, they ranked first and third in growth. Their pace of expansion was more than double that recorded by Ottawa, which was the fastest-growing among the country’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. 

“Although construction costs are similar in the city, it could be $150,000 to $200,000 less in land cost here. Embrun is still growing — there’s a new plaza, major food chains and you’ll see more growth continue due to affordability and attracting more services,” he says, adding Valecraft recently purchased more lots for a 10-year supply of land. 

But while city dwellers keen to stretch their legs and their budgets set their sights on communities east of Ottawa, existing residents have their own concerns. 

“Folks move out here because the cost of living in the city is ridiculous,” reads one comment on social media from an Embrun resident. “They can get way more bang for their city buck buying in a small town. Then, inevitably, the city follows them. The small town becomes more and more unaffordable because the market is booming. The city amenities begin to appear and multiply and eventually the town becomes another extension of the city they left. It’s a vicious cycle.”

The figures bear this out. According to the Ottawa Real Estate Association, the average residential resale price last year in Embrun was $626,500, up 107 per cent from 2016. In Russell, prices averaged $650,000 — up 91 per cent.

David Coletto, founding partner and CEO of Abacus Data, believes a “perfect storm” of circumstances means more millennials are migrating from urban areas to greener pastures, with one of the driving factors being a lack of affordable housing. 

Coletto spoke to members of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association at a breakfast social in March.

“If you have two children and are making $200,000 a year in a household, odds are you don’t want to live in a 900-square-foot condo in downtown Ottawa ... and so you’re looking to go farther out and that’s what we’re seeing in the data going forward,” Coletto observes.

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 grassroots non-profit that originally sprang up in 2010 to oppose a mega-landfill project, found 51 per cent of respondents said preventing urban sprawl was a top environmental concern, while 73 per cent cited deforestation and loss of natural habitats. 

“With unprecedented growth, protecting agricultural lands and natural spaces is essential,” Eco East president Lisa Deacon says. “Development continues in the direction of single-detached homes on small lots favouring distance from greenspace and amenities and clustered multi-national big-box commercial options. 

“Eco East recommends designing community hubs, which are dense, walkable and feature ample community space, including gardens and parks, in already established town limits. Reviving main streets, including locally owned small businesses, is a key component of this vision,” Deacon adds. 

The citizens committee in Limoges did approach large grocery businesses about building there, but were told the catchment area was not large enough. 

A new system to bring water from Cheney to Limoges is also being commissioned, meaning the town’s growth can continue. However, infrastructure expansions are expensive and planning is complicated, with numerous players involved.

Stacey Murphy proposed a splash pad for Russell. “The growth and interest in Russell has been great and I think the township is really at a major transition point,” she says. “Unfortunately, I have witnessed that the township itself does not seem to have the resources nor the knowledge and understanding of what this growth means for community development, particularly on the parks and recreation side.”

Rural townships often have small budgets but large geographical areas. Additional development produces more traffic, for example, which shortens infrastructure lifetimes. This year’s budget for Russell Township includes $2 million for paving on only about 16 kilometres out of over 190 kilometres of paved roads. Jonathan Bourgon, executive director of infrastructure, said another $2.4 million for other roadwork is budgeted, plus major investments in sidewalks and bridges.

Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux acknowledges potential issues, but is enthusiastic about the changes. 

“With growth comes growing pains … however, we have the resources and the infrastructure in place to meet these challenges.