OKOTOKS — Already feeling the strain on their collective waistband, more than three-quarters of Okotoks residents believe further growth of the town is inevitable despite a cap on growth, a new Ipsos Reid survey reveals.
The survey results offer insight to town councillors as they prepare to make a decision in the more than decade-long debate over how to manage development in the bedroom community just south of Calgary.
“Nobody is really denying that growth is going to happen,” Jamie Duncan, vice-president of Ipsos Reid, told the Herald on Monday. “What they’re looking for is clear direction on how it’s going to happen and what role the town is actually going to take in terms of managing that.”
Over the past five years, Okotoks has seen growth of 42.9 per cent, from a population of 17,150 in 2006 to 24,511 last year, according to 2011 census data.
In 1998 the town placed a 30,000 cap on its population. The Sheep River, the community’s water source, can only serve a maximum of 32,000.
On Sept. 24, town council will vote on whether to keep the cap or lift it and instead bid to annex enough land outside the town’s existing boundary to accommodate growth for the next 30 years. Lifting the cap will require the town to explore outside water options, including connecting to a regional water pipeline from Calgary.
The vote, originally planned for June 25, was postponed to allow councillors more time to consider their decision.
In late April the town commissioned the Ipsos survey, in paper and online, the results of which were discussed during Monday’s council meeting.
Of the survey respondents, 74 per cent are concerned about population growth. Of those, 33 per cent are “very concerned” and 41 per cent are “somewhat concerned” about growth.
Eighty-five per cent of survey respondents are concerned about the town’s water supply.
Driving many residents’ trepidation are concerns that Okotoks will lose its “small town feel,” a sentiment shared by resident Mary Ellen Goslin, who said she doesn’t want to see the population cap lifted.
“I like the small town atmosphere,” said Goslin, who has lived in Okotoks for six years. “You get to know people. . . . That’s why I live here, and not in Calgary.”
Of the survey respondents, 86 per cent say it’s important the town maintain its close-knit community atmosphere, including Monika McLachlan, owner of the Okotoks Candy Shoppe.
McLachlan said the small town appeal is what draws customers to her store.
“It’s a destination place, not just a bedroom community for Calgary,” she said.
Rather than have respondents choose future growth options, the survey gauged residents’ feelings about the quality of life, rate of growth, concerns about growth and confidence in town council to make the right decision.
“It certainly wasn’t a plebiscite question,” said Coun. Matt Rockley, who put forth the motion in March for the town to vote on the issue. “It wasn’t intended that this survey will make the decision for us. It was intended that we would receive information to help us determine . . . the best way forward.”
Sixty-six per cent of respondents are confident town councillors will make the best decision for the community.
“To me, that’s a great indication that people feel that council will make the right decision,” said Rockley. “They aren’t looking for a plebiscite to decide this issue.
Coun. Florence Christophers said council now needs to digest the survey results and decide on the best course of action.
“We have three months to get our game on,” Christophers said. “It’s our job. It’s our responsibility.”
Mayor Bill Robertson agreed. Debate on the population cap has been ongoing for years, and the vote has been postponed numerous times.
“I would be very disappointed if we didn’t make a decision on Sept. 24,” he told council.