When you’re shut inside, space becomes an overwhelming preoccupation. For years, an interest in moving out of the city has been reflected in those with young families and retirees; COVID-19 has accelerated this trend.
The move to rural living can be seen clearly in the small town of Kemptville, the commercial centre of North Grenville Township, which is growing at two times the provincial average. Since 2001, the population has grown by almost 4,000 people.
“The growth was happening anyway,” says mayor Nancy Peckford, “but the pandemic has accelerated an interest in rural living.”
“Sustainable growth, fresh vision, and a bold perspective is what the people of North Grenville want,” says Peckford. “Council has been clear that growth contributes to an increased quality of life and need not diminish the quality of small-town living. We are working to preserve the heritage downtown core of Kemptville and its rural character. We recognize that we need to be deliberate in our work with developers to explore what is possible and limit what might be lost in terms of natural assets.”
Those natural assets include 1,000 acres of forestland, a historic main street, and a picturesque river. In many ways, it epitomizes small-town charm.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get a jug of milk without spending an hour at the store,” says developer Gilles Brisebois, owner of the LA Group, which has been involved with many developments near Kemptville. Brisebois moved to the town in 1980, to attend college at the former University of Guelph’s Kemptville campus. He stayed for the joys of small-town living, raising three children; he becomes misty-eyed when visiting the former college campus, which has been renovated into a business hub. “Every time I come here, I feel the soul of the people who’ve lived here,” he says.
His next project is the 160-acre Oxford Village, which will include up to 1,200 apartments, single-family houses, and townhomes. It hit the market last fall and is marketed toward younger families, offering a “heritage feel,” says Brisebois. The plan also details 50 acres of wetlands for preservation and community use. “We have to let the town grow, but not in a free-for-all. Green and growing is how we describe Kemptville.”
The conflict that can arise between the desire to go green and the demands of growth can be seen in Chelsea, where residents have resisted development vocally over the years. Projects have met opposition by members of the Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment (ACRE), and any applications to circumvent the municipal zoning regulation for new developments, which currently allows one house per two acres, sparks controversy. But a couple of recent projects have brought change to the village.
At Hendrick Farm, the community is designed like a classic British heritage village, with houses situated around a dense urban core, leaving over 50 per cent of the parcel of land undeveloped for community use.
“Traditional suburbs aren’t what these buyers are interested in — they want amenities like parks and trails and small-scale commerce, all within walking distance,” says Jules Ribi of Hendrick Farm. Ribi says they’ve seen an increase in sales from buyers leaving Toronto, as well as young first-time homebuyers.
There is also Chelsea Highlands, part of the previously undeveloped lands formerly owned by the Larrimac Golf Club. In 2019, developer Carrie Wallace persuaded council to allow one house per acre for a development there. “While lot sizes might be smaller, we are keeping the same density,” she explains, “so, de facto, we will preserve 50 per cent of the land for community use.”
Wallace, who grew up in Chelsea, is an outdoors enthusiast and brings that sensibility to Chelsea Highlands. “Our priority was to minimize the impact of the project on the natural environment,” she says. She has also convinced council to create a new category of road — the low-volume — which is substantially narrower than most new roads. “I even hope that the tree canopy will grow back over it within a few years,” she says. Walking and biking trails have been cut through the woodland, and a SnowDog groomer will keep those trails open during winter.
Chelsea Highlands buyers must also sign a covenant covering such things as tree-cutting, swimming pools, fencing, and architectural design, and they must go through a “site-potential exercise” with a surveyor to guide the development. “It’s pretty amazing to see how people’s understanding and appreciation of their new property changes as they go through this exercise — they develop a deeper understanding of the impact that their house construction will have.”
Wallace opened sales in August and has sold 28 of the 31 available lots already. “I do think people are looking to leave the city,” she says, “and COVID has made them think about this. Sales have come by word of mouth to people who are really into respecting the natural environment.”