Time bomb

The Okanagan's population was forecast in 1994 to nearly double, to 600,000 people by 2019, stoking fears illustrated by this front page article about the consequences of growth. The population forecast was way off, as only about 370,000 people now live in the Valley.

Phantoms populate the streets of Kelowna, shadows of people who were confidently predicted to move here but never arrived.

Bad as you might think traffic is now, it was supposed to have been worse. Thirty-five per cent worse, in the estimation of people who ran City Hall in 1997.

That year, local officials said the Central Okanagan would have a population of 263,000 by 2021. There still aren’t even 200,000 of us in Kelowna, Lake Country, West Kelowna, and Peachland.

As wildly inaccurate as that prognostication has proven to be, it’s not even the worst bit of population forecasting promoted by local bureaucrats.

In 1994, politicians attending a Kelowna growth management conference heard experts predict the valley’s population would double to almost 600,000 by 2020.

That was a eye-popping projection, and it came with all kinds of dire warnings from local bureaucrats about how certain calamity would ensue if they weren’t empowered to immediately devise all kinds of government-driven plans, strategies, schemes and regulations to properly control growth.

This newspaper illustrated the manufactured fears over an insufficiently regulated future with a big front-page graphic that showed a sparkler fuse, in place of a stem, burning down on a big juicy apple about to explode. The matching sky-is-falling headline ‘Growth – Time Bomb?’

The past foolishness of counting people so far into the future is worth remembering whenever – and it’s practically all the time – Mayor Colin Basran and city councillors talk about how much growth Kelowna is going to experience by 2040.

There it was again at Monday’s meeting, when reference was made to the 50,000 people who’ll supposedly be here in just two decades. And that figure isn’t even for the entire Central Okanagan – it’s just for Kelowna.

Officialdom’s historic ineptitude in predicting the future would be little more than a matter of mild amusement except that the projections are routinely used to justify important and costly decisions in the here-and-now. The dubious forecasts underpin everything from tax increases to land use management, transportation spending to water rates.

The city’s updated official community plan, for example, calls for the drastic curtailing of growth in suburban areas and forcing more people into established neighbourhoods. Of course, closing off greenfield areas for development will only drive up the price of the available land, and thus the price of housing.

But this basic economic reality is of no interest to self-assured city planners and depressingly incurious councillors. Instead of asking sensible questions about the voluminous reports that cross their desk every week, councillors instead vie among themselves to heap the most lavish praise on bureaucrats. Most councillors seem to think agreeing with everything they read and hear from staff makes them look smart.

They should spend less time in the echo chamber of City Hall and more time asking real-life citizens what they think of a

20 per cent municipal tax increase over the last five years, an increase that’s triple the inflation rate.

While they’re at it, they might also ask real life taxpayers what they think of an expansion in the size and salaries of Kelowna’s municipal workforce, to the point now where almost half the 888 full-time employees make more than $75,000 a year.

Such honest consultations, however, would draw some inconvenient and uncomfortable answers, at least from the city’s point of view. Better to ask people, as the city routinely does in its citizen survey, stuff like, “Do you like the airport?”

Despite its banal questions, that survey, done by a professional pollster, at least has some degree of statistical accuracy. Other city-led consultation processes are so skewed in their conception and execution, and in the self-selecting nature of their respondents, to be of less than zero validity as a reliable gauge to public opinion.

The ‘Pick Your Path to 2040’ and ‘Imagine Kelowna’ endeavours showed – surprise! – strong public support for

discouraging the construction of single-family homes and massive new funding

for public transit at the expense of road-building.

Meanwhile, in the real world, single-family home ownership remains by far the most aspirational form of housing, and transit ridership increases lag far behind already considerable investments in the past decade.

On the rare occasions when the city’s consultations do yield results that are unexpected and unwanted, the exercise is basically ignored, as happened in the recent debate on short-term rentals. The survey showed strong public support for allowing Airbnb, as a means of generating both income for property owners and promoting a cheaper form of travel.

Instead, the city crafted regulations, justified by leftist market interventionist ideology and backed by hefty fines, that have basically run Airbnb out of town.

Despite the city’s finger-in-the-dike efforts now, market forces, public demand, and the inherently unknowable vagaries of the future will ensure that Airbnb or something like it operates in Kelowna in 2045.

When, of course, the city’s population will be 6.5 million.

Ron Seymour is a Daily Courier reporter. His column now returns on a twice-weekly basis.