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Increased water fees amid coronavirus causes conflict in Conrich

Residents of a Calgary-area community have filed a complaint against a developer for increasing their water rates amid the coronavirus.

The Cambridge Park community in Conrich, comprised of 200 homes and 1,000 residents, filed the complaint with the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) against Amar Developments Ltd.

Residents received a notice from the company that their water rate will increase from $3.71 to $4.45 – a roughly 20 per cent increase. They received the notice in April but the rate increase was retroactive to March.

“It’s frustrating because everybody’s at home. Naturally, the water usage is going to go up,” said Sunil Chaudhary, a Conrich resident.

It’s a troubling mix of messages said another resident.

“The government’s telling you to use water to wash your hands and keep sanitary. They’re telling you not to. It’s kind of ridiculous,” said Aaron Chatha. 

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Letter notifying residents of the water rate increase. / CONTRIBUTED.

Developer said credit will be issued

Rani Duhra, head of the company, said Rocky View Utilities Corp is hired to do their billing.  

“It was just an admin error on their part, but they corrected it. They made people aware of the error, and they gave them the credit of the increase,” she said. 

Credit was forwarded as reflected in a resident’s April bill. / Contributed.

The first notification for the increase came a month earlier from the Cambridge Park homeowner’s association, which she also heads.

“She used the wrong channel … she has no authority to do that,” Chaudhary said.

This was a mistake by Duhra’s secretary, accidentally sending out the notice with the wrong letterhead.

“[Her secretary] quickly rectified that,” she said, and sent out the notification at the correct time with the right letterhead.

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First notice of increase that was not sent by the developer. / CONTRIBUTED.

Reason for the increase

Water wells owned by Amar Developments serve the community. Duhra said that Alberta Environment put a limit on how much water they’re able to draw from these wells.

She said this is because a municipal waterline already exists and needs to be connected to the area instead of using groundwater.

Due to this, they’ve had to truck in large amounts of water. Duhra said this costs five times as much, adding to the fee increase. The company said they paid the prior trucking fee themselves, which was more than $60,000, she said.

Duhra said they made homeowners aware of the rate increase during an open house in January. It was temporary in order to cover the cost trucking in water.

While there was an open house in January, it was about the upcoming phase 4 development in the area. The notice didn’t specify that water issues or rate increases would be discussed.

Notice of January open house. / CONTRIBUTED.

Chaudhary said he attended the whole meeting and mentioned that the developer didn’t make the attendees aware that they were trucking in water, or of any rate increase.

“That was a kind of a blindside.”

No jobs but increased rate

The increase in the rate has been difficult for the community due to job losses caused by COVID-19.

“In my house alone, I’ve been laid off, my wife’s been laid off, my mom’s been laid off. We’re all at home and our water rates just went up,” said Chaudhary.

“I paid 300 dollars last month for my water bills.”

Duhra said water use has doubled because everyone’s at home due to the ongoing pandemic. She said if they can’t afford the fee increase, they have the option of being put on a payment plan. 

Residents said they’re currently unaware of any payment plan.

Duhra said the average water consumption per household is about 20 cubic metres. The difference of the rate increase in this case only comes up to an extra 15 dollars per month.

“The increase is very minimal in regards to the high cost that we are getting,” she said.  

The community is made up of multi-family homes, and the main problem residents expressed is being at home, which in turn will increase water usage causing higher dues.

“It’s a time where most Canadians income and job security is a serious concern,” said Chatha.

“A lot of people are out of work or temporarily laid off.”

Application of rate increase

A concern of the residents is that the company didn’t apply for a rate increase through the AUC, or give the residents 30 days notice. 

According to the AUC, developers can set water rates without commission oversight, if the developer and customers can reach an agreement. It’s efficient and cost-effective given the small size of some water utilities, and the associated costs of a formal Commission rate review, they said.

The AUC are now involved in settling the rates since a complaint has been filed. They said they have instructed the developer to take action to settle the case. There will be a formal, evidence-based adjudication process if no agreement is reached. 

Duhra said the company is also partnering with Rocky View County to run a water line to the community because the municipality doesn’t have the funds to do it. The rate increase will end once the water line is active. 

Rocky View County’s area structure plan for Conrich said piped utilities to support development are available in the area. It’s expected that new developments will connect to these service systems.

Duhra said that whatever the company has done is only to provide a service to the residents. 

“We are not making any money off of this,” she said.

“We haven’t done anything wrong. In fact, I wish I didn’t have to do this. We just have to do this to cover the [trucking] costs.” 

Sunny Samra said that hasn’t been communicated to the residents in writing.

“If it’s temporary it should be mentioned in the letter of the hike as well.”

Relation to phase 4

Amar Developments is working to bring in Phase 4 of Cambridge Park, which will include a business campus district.

Many residents are opposed to the Phase 4 development, saying that it’s not compatible with the outlook of the community and lifestyle expectations.

They claim that the water increase is interrelated, as it came shortly after a petition opposing phase 4 by the residents was sent to the county.

Duhra said the rate increase has nothing to do with the upcoming development or opposition.

“This development will be in the ground for a couple years, so that doesn’t make sense,” she said, since the fee is only for the current temporary trucking.

Residents want more clarity

The residents of Cambridge Park have a different view. The AUC said the focus of the homeowner’s application is about transparency and process.

“We’re frankly in the dark. They don’t communicate, they kind of do their own thing,” said Chatha.

Residents feel they are already struggling under quarantine conditions. They said increasing water rates is taking advantage of an uncertain economic situation.

“We’re just trying to do our best to combat this unfair hike.”

Duhra claims the company is undertaking projects to benefit the community.

“What we’re doing is only going to help everybody and everything.”