July 12, 2012

Saint John’s New Municipal Plan: Implications for Residential Property Developers

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Common Council for the City of Saint John (the “City”) approved a new municipal plan (the “Municipal Plan”) on January 30, 2012.  The Municipal Plan sets out a long term vision for the City regarding land use, environmental stewardship, efficient delivery of municipal services, fiscal impact analysis of new or altered development applications, capital expenditures and investment decisions by the City, and detailed policies for monitoring and implementation.

In particular, the Municipal Plan will guide how residential development and planning will unfold over the next 25 years and will significantly alter the patterns of residential development that have existed in the City for the last 40 years.

In this newsletter, we examine the policies in the Municipal Plan as they pertain to residential property development and the implications for residential property developers.


The City of Saint John was first settled as a series of densely populated neighbourhoods situated around the uptown core. Most people lived closely to where they worked, shopped, went to school and socialized.  This pattern of development remained intact more or less until the Second World War.

In the post Second World War era a number of municipal and regional infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the Saint John Throughway, opened up the possibility of people moving away from the densely populated urban core of the City.  The out-migration from the City to the suburbs and rural areas was facilitated by the emergence of the automobile as a primary means of transportation.  By the late 1970s this outward trend had become one of the main factors contributing to the eventual decline in population of the City.

The desire of urban dwellers to live in less densely populated areas was satisfied by local property developers and land speculators, who increasingly purchased large tracts of land in rural and semi-rural areas of the City which were typically not serviced by municipal infrastructure.  These lands were then subdivided to create low density single family residences.  Such developments were attractive to home buyers since they provided many comforts of rural living such as large lot size and privacy while still benefitting from municipal services and relatively easy access to the urban core by automobile. 

Such low density subdivisions lacked the economic efficiencies previously enjoyed by the City’s urban core communities.  When the population base of municipalities is concentrated in tightly knit urban cores, the cost to deliver services to citizens is relatively low because service providers (i.e., water and sewer, emergency responders, road maintenance and other services) only need to travel a short distance to provide services.  On the other hand, when the population extends beyond the urban core into pockets of low density housing, the cost to the service provider is increased exponentially because the same level of service must be provided to smaller groups of people who are located further apart from one another.   


The Municipal Plan seeks to reverse some of the negative consequences of past residential planning policies which permitted urban and rural sprawl.  The Municipal Plan intends to accomplish this by promoting compact and high density residential development within the urban core so that City services may be provided more efficiently.  The goal is to direct new development to areas of the City with existing municipal services and infrastructure.  This will result in increased efficiency and lower long term costs for water and sewer, emergency response, road maintenance and other services. 

The City will implement this aspect of the Municipal Plan through the introduction of new zoning and subdivision bylaws.  The implementation process is underway. 


The Municipal Plan will focus future residential development within so-called Primary Development Areas (“PDA”).  Approximately 95% of all future residential growth will occur within the PDA.  The remaining 5% will occur in rural areas of the City (lands outside the PDA).  Within the PDA, 45% of new residential development will be directed to Urban Neighbourhood Intensification Areas (“Urban Areas”), 40% will be directed towards Suburban Neighbourhood Intensification Areas (“Suburban Areas”) while 10% of residential development will occur in existing low density stable areas. 

Boundaries of the lands comprising the PDA, and the lands outside of the PDA, may be determined by reviewing the Future Land Use Map attached to the Municipal Plan.  More exact boundaries for the PDA will be determined once the City enacts the updated zoning by-law to implement the Municipal Plan.

Location of Urban Areas

Urban Areas are neighbourhoods that developed prior to World War II.  These areas are urban in nature, serviced by existing municipal infrastructure and are primarily residential with medium density housing and convenience retail services.  Urban Areas are located in five areas of the City core:

  1. Old North End;
  2. South End;
  3. Lower West Side;
  4. Waterloo Village; and
  5. Crescent Valley.

Location of Suburban Areas

Suburban Areas are neighbourhoods that developed after World War II and are also primarily residential but with lower density housing than Urban Areas.  Suburban Areas are located in the following City neighbourhoods:

  1. Central Millidgeville;
  2. University Avenue;
  3. Monte Cristo/Gault Road; and
  4. Forest Hills/Lakewood.


The Municipal Plan intends that the majority of future residential property developments in the City of Saint John will be located in the PDA.  Once new zoning and subdivision bylaws are enacted to implement the Municipal Plan, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for any residential property development to be undertaken in the suburban and rural outskirts of the City not comprised within the PDA.

This may negatively impact land owners and property developers who possess undeveloped tracts of land not located in the PDA.  Such land owners may suffer decreased property values and/or loss of economic opportunity without the prospect of subdivision for residential development.  There are broad swaths of such lands located in parts of the following general areas of Saint John: 1) Golden Grove; 2) Loch Lomond; 3) Old Black River Road; 4) Mispec; 5) South Bay; 6) Acamac; 7) Belmont; 8) Morna; and 9) Martinon. 

Residential property developers should carefully examine the Future Land Use Map.  If developers own lands outside the PDA for which they have future development plans, then the new zoning bylaw may prohibit the approval of the project.  This outcome may be avoided by commencing the project before the PDA is formally created by the new zoning bylaw.  The City anticipates the new zoning bylaw to be enacted within the next 12 months.  Thus, developers should commence any planned residential development projects (which are outside of the PDA) within this timeframe in order to ensure development approval by the City.  If this is not possible, then we recommend contacting City politicians who may be able to advocate on behalf of residential property developers to preserve the proper zoning for future residential development purposes.

The current population of the City is approximately 68,000 people.  By 2031 the Municipal Plan projects the population will rise to 77,500 people.  It is anticipated that approximately 5000 new residential units (houses, townhouses and apartments) will be required to accommodate this growth.  Thus, the Municipal Plan may provide significant development opportunities to residential property developers.  In order to take advantage of these opportunities, residential property developers should plan new developments inside the PDA.

In Urban Areas there are abundant vacant lots which may be capable of comprising multi-unit high density housing.  Opportunities for multi-residential units situated in more suburban locales are in the Millidgeville and Gault Road/Monte Cristo areas.  In addition, there is opportunity to re-tool and re-develop existing structures in Urban Areas and Suburban Areas to provide additional residential development.  Such developments will be a marked departure from the traditional low density subdivision developments of the last 40 years, but will be the reality for the next 25 years.

Please direct questions or suggestions to:
Michael Gillis

For a printable .pdf version please click here.

Cox & Palmer publications are intended to provide information of a general nature only and not legal advice. The information presented is current to the date of publication and may be subject to change following the publication date.