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COLUMN: Pressure is sure to intensify

With water no longer an issue, Town leaders are going to face weighty decisions when it comes to development.
Home construction 11
Home builders are sure to look longingly at Okotoks now that a long-term water source has been secured. File Photo

I don’t envy the good folks at Okotoks Town Hall because I believe they’ll be faced with some pretty weighty decisions — ones that could potentially define the character of this community — in the not-so-distant future.  

It’s clear the Calgary region is becoming an increasingly desirable place to call home, buoyed in part by an exodus from overheated housing markets in Canada’s two biggest cities. When compared to Toronto and Vancouver, Cowtown looks downright affordable, and given a recent RE/MAX survey found 40 per cent of respondents were willing to move provinces to find reasonably-priced housing, it’s not a stretch to think more people are on the way. 

It also can't be overlooked that the two fastest growing places in Alberta in the last census were both suburbs of Calgary as Cochrane experienced the largest increase at a whopping 24 per cent, while Airdrie’s 20 per cent jump saw it pass Fort McMurray, Medicine Hat and Grand Prairie to become the fifth largest population centre in the entire province. 

Okotoks experienced a far more modest 4.8 per cent increase in population over the previous five years but that doesn’t mean development pressures have somehow bypassed our fair town. Given that all three suburbs are relatively comparable distances to the city centre, it stands to reason that market forces will impact Okotoks every bit as much as the other two. 

Access to water has long been a stumbling block, but with the joint Town/County Bow River project set to rectify that situation in the next three years, the only thing left standing between present-day Okotoks and a community that looks and feels materially different are public and political will. With a secure water source in place, it’s hard to believe developers won’t be lining up at the door to pitch all kinds of proposals, which means civic leaders will face some tough choices. 

One option is to resist development, thereby creating more demand than supply, and watch house prices soar beyond the reach of many, while the other is to open the door to construction and see the small-town vibe get swallowed up by suburban sprawl. Neither is terribly appealing, so some sort of middle ground is the more likely route, but there are many shades of grey in such an approach that each comes with its own choices. 

No single decision is likely to have a dramatic effect, but add them all up and you could get a community you no longer recognize, whether it’s one that’s priced out young families or one that’s so congested it’s unpleasant to navigate. 

As house prices continue their inevitable rise, a single-family home will become less attainable, which means denser, more affordable developments will be required to maintain Okotoks’ demographic makeup. Clinging to a single-family-centric mindset might ensure a familiar look, but that will undoubtedly come at the expense of the next generation. 

Okotoks is far too desirable a community for development pressure not to rear its head, so how we deal with it will go a long way to determining whether it remains that enviable place.