Hemmed in on the Heights

It may offer a million-dollar view, but the lack of suitable land for development is causing frustration in Shea Heights

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on March 7, 2009
Shea Heights resident Harold Druken Sr. and others in the tight-knit community are frustrated there's no land for residential development. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

It's ironic that one of the best places for observing growth in St. John's is from Shea Heights, where vacant building lots are as rare as skyscrapers and the real-estate market is nearly non-existent.

In most areas of the St. John's metropolitan area, neighhbourhoods are expanding as residential development continues at a steady pace, driven by the oil industry and an influx of people from other regions of the province.

It's ironic that one of the best places for observing growth in St. John's is from Shea Heights, where vacant building lots are as rare as skyscrapers and the real-estate market is nearly non-existent.

In most areas of the St. John's metropolitan area, neighhbourhoods are expanding as residential development continues at a steady pace, driven by the oil industry and an influx of people from other regions of the province.

But the proliferation of new homes has bypassed Shea Heights, a close-knit community situated on the Southside Hills, overlooking the city. There's nowhere to build a new home and developers are not being drawn to the area because of the high cost of preparing land.

The storm sewer system is also in need of some major upgrades, and the steep road leading to the community is an eye-opener for first-time visitors.

Anyone wanting to buy an existing home also faces difficulty. As of this week, there were only two houses listed for sale, both asking premium prices. It's not uncommon for complete strangers to knock on someone's door and ask whether the homeowner is willing to sell, said Ted Parnell, a real-estate agent who spent his formative years in Shea Heights.

"The only way to acquire a house in Shea Heights is to buy an existing property, and right now there's nothing available," he said.

Wayne Collins is one of the lucky ones. He purchased a condemned house two years ago and will start construction on his new house this spring. His two sisters are also eager to move back to the community, but can't find anything.

"There's not one inch of land here for sale," Collins said.

It's a frustrating situation for residents who want to see their community grow, and they are already seeing the evidence of being hemmed in.

At St. John Bosco, the community's K-9 school, September enrolment for kindergarten is 15 students - six fewer than last year. In contrast, new schools or extensions are being constructed in places like Paradise and Torbay and Conception Bay South. Earlier this decade, Bosco was an all-grade school, and there are fears the school may be downgraded again.

Lifelong resident Peter Jordan said Shea Heights could become a retirement village unless various levels of government come forward with financial assistance for land development and infrastructure upgrades.

"We'd like the city and the government to have a serious look and see what the problems are and how they can be addressed," said Jordan.

Like many small towns in Newfoundland, it was a common practice for the next generation in Shea Heights to build or buy homes in their neighbourhood. But that hasn't been possible in recent years, unless people were lucky enough to purchase an existing home.

Jordan grew up across the street from his grandparents, with aunts and uncles and cousins not far away.

"We have a situation where we have people coming back from away, as well as getting married, and moving out of our community because they don't have an opportunity to purchase or build something here," Jordan explained.

According to the 2006 census, there were 2005 residents in Shea Heights, occupying 740 residences. The community became part of the City of St. John's in the 1980s, and there has been steady growth over the years.

But an inventory carried out by the city several years ago found that most of the 168 acres of land in the community had already been developed.

The area is represented on city council by Wally Collins, who admitted the issue of land availability is a challenging one.

"I'm working on it," he said.

St. John's South MHA Tom Osborne is also familiar with the issue, and said the province would be willing to cost-share municipal infrastructure if the city made it a priority.

"It's not a matter of partnership, it's a matter of the city outlining their priorities and coming to the province and receiving a share of funding," said Osborne, who applauded city councillors Ron Ellsworth, Frank Galgay and Collins for their efforts.

The city recently completed an estimate of the development cost for a 16-lot subdivision off Blackhead Road. The developer would have to charge more than $160,000 per lot just to recover costs, said Art Cheeseman, the city's director of engineering.

In other areas of the city, prices range from $65,000 to $100,000 per lot.

"There's a lot of rock involved," Cheeseman said.

The installation of water and sewer services for a new subdivision is the responsibility of the developer, and those costs are passed on to the buyer. So any new subdivisions for Shea Heights would have to be driven by private enterprise.

Harold Druken, a well-known community leader, admitted development will never happen under that scenario. That's why he and others want the governments to get involved.

"At least just put the water and sewer lines through," Druken said. "Let the people buy the land, build their homes and pay their taxes."

He said there's no desire on the part of city leaders to help Shea Heights, and he feels his community is being neglected.

"We have got the wrong end of the shaft for a long time," Druken said.

troberts@thetelegram.com