COLUMN: Continued growth comes at a price

Does growth ultimately result in a better or worse deal for residents of Nanaimo?

Five years ago, Nanaimo and Area Land Trust hosted guest speaker Bill Rees, a professor of community and regional planning at UBC. Essentially, he said if we continue to grow our ecological footprint at the rate we are, we are basically on a sinking ship.

At the time, I was researching the idea of population caps for cities, specifically the town of Okotoks, Alta., which had already implemented one. I asked Rees whether that was a possibility here and he dismissed my question with a flick of his wrist.

Instead, his key solution was to “write to your politicians and demand change.”

That experience came back to me last Monday night while covering a regular city council meeting.

While discussing the future of our water supply, and the fact that demand could outpace supply as soon as 2020 unless a major infrastructure project is built to create another dam, Coun. Bill Bestwick asked the same question I did.

His question was met with a similar response – that our Official Community Plan is designed to encourage growth and that, no, capping growth has not been considered and is not desired.

The new dam will likely cost tens of millions of dollars, on top of the $65-million water treatment facility scheduled to be complete in 2015.

To that effect, in 2020, 100,000 Nanaimo residents will be on the hook for about $125 million in water infrastructure alone, though a portion of that will be covered by provincial and federal taxpayer money.

Never mind the additional $2 billion (yes, that is a ‘b’) in municipal infrastructure such as roads, pipes and wires that will also require maintenance and replacement in that same time frame.

Two years ago, when the proposed development of Oceanview (formerly Cable Bay) was on council’s agenda, I asked another question to a senior staff member: Does growth ultimately result in a better or worse deal for residents of Nanaimo?

The response was that, if done right, growth would, at best, not present an additional financial burden on taxpayers. If not done right, then the entire city would have to pick up the tab for increased infrastructure.

In other words, for each new Nanaimo resident, chances are the people who already live here will have to pay more money to help sustain a growing population.

If there is a better definition of unsustainable, I haven’t heard it.

With respect to water, supply is finite, and so is the financial backing to build the required infrastructure to pipe water into people’s homes and businesses. Adding to the population doesn’t spread out the cost, it increases it per capita.

Anybody who owns property in Nanaimo, or uses water or sewer services, knows their user rates and property taxes aren’t going down, they’ve been constantly ascending for years as our population grows.

We live on an island. Space and resources are supremely finite. This point was driven home to me on a recent trip to Kauai, Hawaii.

I understand that at any given time, visitors to Kauai equals the number of residents, of which there are about 60,000. People stream in to the beachside resorts and condos daily while 1,200 locals wait for a permanent home to be built for them by Habitat for Humanity because it is simply too expensive to purchase one.

Many locals there are forced to work two jobs just to pay for basic needs. Common bell peppers are $8 per pound, and a loaf of bread easily hits $6. Gas is $4.28 a gallon.

Currently, there is a strong movement in Nanaimo to attract more people, business and tourism.

In Kauai, I saw a bumper sticker that read ‘My life is better than your vacation’ and a T-shirt that read ‘Keep the weeds out so that the Natives can grow.’

Obviously, all is not well economically in that particular paradise. Our community leaders should keep that in mind before soliciting growth that residents who live here now are not able to pay for.

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