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COLUMN: Pulling up bridge not the answer

Growth in Okotoks will have an impact on the small-town vibe, but status quo comes with its drawbacks too.
NEWS-Old Welcome to Okotoks Sign RK 6864WEB
Okotoks is in a sweet spot right now — big enough, but not too big. (Robert Korotyszyn/

I hail from a community where growth is considered a four-letter word, so I’m intimately familiar with residents getting hot under the collar when a large-scale development proposal is put before them. 

Early on in my career, which you can tell from the photo was more than a few years ago, I witnessed the longest public hearing in Canadian history, a 27-nighter spread over the better part of two months, that saw people rail — successfully, I might add — against a plan to build almost 2,000 homes in a suburb of Vancouver. 

I don’t envision the Tillotson proposal in southwest Okotoks will engender that level of unrest should it reach the public hearing stage, but it’s clear there are concerns out there over what’s essentially the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the West Okotoks Area Structure Plan. 

The first of five neighbourhoods that are to be spread over more than 1,000 acres, Tillotson is sizable in its own right at almost 160 acres, complete with a mix of housing types to accommodate 3,500 or so new residents. Build-out of the entire structure plan would see housing for some 24,000 people, although it’s expected to take more than half a century to get to that point. 

Regardless of the timeline, the sheer scope of what’s on the drawing board is causing a fair bit of consternation, particularly in terms of what it means for Okotoks’ small-town vibe. Some people I’ve spoken to believe the town has already outgrown that characterization, while others hold onto it, although at some point you’ve got to ask: How big can you get and still be considered a small town? 

I believe Okotoks is in a sweet spot right now — big enough, but not too big — however I don’t imagine the tipping point is far off, which makes all that development, both what’s already approved and what’s still in the proposal stage, critical to the town’s future. 

I’m mixed when I see growth because it does have its benefits, from providing shopkeepers with more customers to sharing infrastructure costs to increasing housing variety, yet at the same time, it chips away at that small town feel to the point where, if there’s too much development, it disappears altogether. 

Mind you, I’ve never been a fan of what I like to refer to as the drawbridge mentality, which sees people, after coming across the perfect spot to live, lobby for the bridge to be pulled up so they can enjoy what they’ve found but not let anyone else in to spoil the party. There’s no denying this approach helps preserve a town’s character, which is always the greater good argument proffered by these magnanimous folks, but it’s not without its drawbacks. 

Closing the door on growth limits the supply of housing, which inevitably pushes prices up, often beyond the reach of many people, particularly the younger generation. I watched as a single-family-centric community remained relatively status quo for years and over that time saw four elementary schools close because of a dearth of young families. 

Make no mistake, it’s still a nice place — if you can afford to live there.