While Chatham-Kent is in the midst of a residential building boom, Wallaceburg – the municipality’s second largest urban community – is on the outside looking in.
Not a single subdivision is being developed in the northwest Chatham-Kent town.
The snag? The owner of the majority of land designated in the town for future residential development isn’t interested in selling or development.
While Marion Bruinsma and her brother Andrew developed the first phase of the Bruinsma subdivision on the northeast side of Wallaceburg 45 years ago, there hasn’t been a new home built there in years.
Now, a few roads in the subdivision abruptly end at land that’s being farmed.
Bruinsma also owns two large tracts of land in the northwest area of Wallaceburg, including a large property next to a subdivision near the hospital. Both those properties are zoned for future residential development, but are again being farmed.
The situation is leaving the town’s developers, realtors and municipal officials frustrated.
Developer Todd Gilhuly said he’s contacted Bruinsma several times to try to discuss developing the rest of the subdivision but has gotten nowhere.
And he’s not alone: “Multiple people have tried to buy it,” he said.
Gilhuly said the unfinished Bruinsma subdivision and the land behind the hospital are prime locations for new homes because there are schools in those areas.
Realtor Peter Allaer, owner of Riversite Realty, said it’s definitely become a tough situation.
“I know of at least three or four developers that would love to continue (the) Bruinsma (subdivision), but you can’t do it if she won’t sell it,” he said.
While there are a few small tracts of land owned by others that could be developed, “they’re not prime picking like (the) Bruinsma (subdivision),” which is ready to be built on, Allaer said.
With room for several dozen building lots, Allaer said construction on new homes in the Bruinsma subdivision could begin as early as this summer if the land was available.
Bruinsma, though, said she will do something with her properties when “I’m ready to do things.”
“I have not put it on the market,” she said, “so why do people ask me all these questions? I don’t appreciate it.”
Bruinsma said people should contact her directly if they are interested in her land, dismissing claims that people have already approached her.
Ryan Jacques, Chatham-Kent’s director of planning, said Wallaceburg has hundreds of acres of land in various locations earmarked for future residential development.
“There are several properties around the edge of Wallaceburg that could be serviced if a developer controlled the lands and was motivated to make that investment,” he said.
Jacques also believes there would be no shortage of demand for housing.
“In my view, there would be several hundred homes built in the community each year over the next several years if those lots were available,” he said.
When a house comes up for sale in Wallaceburg, it’s attracting a lot of attention, Allaer said.
A home recently listed for $199,000 attracted 19 offers and, driven by demand, finally sold for more than $300,000.
There was a time, Allaer said, when new builds weren’t warranted in Wallaceburg because resale homes – through a lack of demand – could be bought for less than building new.
“That was then,” he added. “Now, we’re at a stage where you could build new homes and sell them, and developers could actually do this and make a reasonable profit, but you can only do that if you have the land to build on.”
Allaer noted there is a strong – and growing – interest in Wallaceburg from out-of-town buyers, particularly young families from Sarnia who are attracted to lower housing prices and the small-town feel of the community.
There also wasn’t much new housing developed across the rest of Chatham-Kent for years, but Jacques noted that demand – like in the rest of the province – began to increase noticeably in late 2016.
“Other Chatham-Kent communities started to realize new subdivision activity to respond to that demand around 2018,” he said.
That interest has remained strong and is likely to continue.
“One of my goals is to work to ensure that the community of Wallaceburg realizes that opportunity as well,” Jacques said.
In his role as director of planning, Jacques said he’s actively trying to attract investment to Wallaceburg and make connections among private interests that may have a shared goal in creating new neighbourhoods in the town.
Allaer and Gilhuly have also expressed frustrations with Chatham-Kent council, making it clear they want to see action by the municipality on this issue.
Mayor Darrin Canniff and Wallaceburg Couns. Carmen McGregor and Aaron Hall said they are trying to address concerns around the lack of development in the community.
“We’re in the midst of reaching out to anybody who has eligible land for residential development to let them know there is an opportunity there,” Canniff said.
He added the municipality is also offering to help the process move along by making connections with area developers and Chatham-Kent land owners.
“We just want to make sure we’ve knocked on all the doors to make landowners aware of the opportunities for residential development,” the mayor said.
McGregor said she knows some developers have tried to talk to different property owners, adding she and Hall have been working with economic development and building staff.
“Hopefully, it won’t be too far off in the future that we have some good news to report,” she said.
Hall said there’s a lot of growth and momentum in Chatham-Kent, and “we absolutely want to see some of that momentum and some of that growth happen in Wallaceburg.”
“A lot of these developments and these announcements, they don’t just happen overnight,” Hall said. “It takes a lot of due diligence and a lot of work behind the scenes.”
Although the real estate market in Chatham-Kent is showing no signs of cooling, no one knows how long this boom will last.
“My mother had a saying, ‘You put the butter on the pan when it’s hot,’” Allaer said. “The pan is hot, it’s time to put the butter on.”