Rapid growth hands challenges to Chilliwack

Preparing for growth means Chilliwack must plan for future infrastructure needs as areas continue to develop and increase in density.

It’s no secret why Chilliwack experienced phenomenal growth in the past five years. Just a sweep of the beauty of the mountains, lakes, rivers, and valleys is enough to draw people here. Then there’s affordable housing, lower living costs, lower taxes, greater ease getting from one place to another, and plenty of sports and arts events to keep most people happy. But that’s only part of the picture for Chilliwack’s healthy expansion.

According to Statistics Canada, since 2006 (the last Census record) Canada has grown by five per cent to 33,376,688 with B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon and Nunavut leading the way. All other provinces recorded below average growth. Nationally, growth has been spurred by immigration (two-thirds) and natural growth (one-third).

The province grew by seven per cent over the past five years from 4,113,487 in 2006 to 4,400,057 in 2011 and Vancouver grew by 4.4 per cent from 578,041 to 603,502. By comparison, the City of Chilliwack’s growth is a significant 12.6 per cent, jumping from 69,217 in the 2006 Census to 77,936 in the Census report released last week.

Mayor Sharon Gaetz, though, believes the population is actually higher.

“We think it’s closer to 82,000,” Mayor Gaetz said. “That’s the figure we use. I think there are a lot of people who don’t fill in the Census form and there are also those living in secondary suites. We have prepared for those.”

Preparing for growth means that the City must plan for future infrastructure needs as areas continue to develop and increase in density.

“Growth pays for itself,” said Gaetz. “We don’t charge our taxpayers extra for people moving into the community. What we do is for any new development we have development cost charges and that’s all applied into sewer and water, or parks and recreation, or roads programs. We were able to build the Evans Road flyover for $51 million. Only $6 million came from other levels of government. The rest came from development cost charges.”

A number of Fraser Valley municipalities have experienced growth comparable to Chilliwack such as Maple Ridge (up 10.3 per cent), Langley Township (up 11.2 per cent), Pitt Meadows (up 13.5 per cent) with Surrey topping the list at a huge 18.6 per cent.

Growth, of course, puts pressure on land values and land uses especially with so much of the Fraser Valley’s arable land protected by the Agricultural Land Reserve. And there are constant applications for land to be removed from the Reserve for development.

Only five per cent of B.C.’s land is suitable for farming and protected under the ALR (some 47,000 square kilometres). Of that, only one per cent has the best Class 1 soil with the highest capability for crop growing. The majority of that soil lies in the Okanagan, southern Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley including the farmland around Chilliwack.

Chilliwack has always been a farming centre and continues to be so with 870 farms providing a stable, highly valued economy. While agricultural land is preserved on the flats, growth is concentrated on the hills or in areas away from arable land.

“In protecting that there are some challenges,” said Gaetz. “When we have public hearings and someone is having condos introduced into a single family neighbourhood they might feel they don’t want their neighbourhood to change. But there’s a certain amount of change that has to happen when you want to accommodate growth.”

Even as Chilliwack grows and changes, Gaetz is quick to acknowledge that some of that growth is coming from within as young people born and raised here choose to stay, graduate, marry, and find careers in their chosen fields,

No wonder Chilliwack’s pretty special.