Surveys on Development Issues
The West Springs Cougar Ridge Community Association (WSCRCA) has, for many years, followed a practice of not conducting surveys on matters such as Land Use Amendment (LUA) applications, major Area Structure Plan (ASP) changes (such as the West Springs ASP) or major transportation initiatives (such as the west LRT expansion or the construction of the ring road). The reasons which underlie that practice include the following:
1. Adjacent land owners, who have an obvious interest in nearby land use matters, are given notice and an opportunity to submit their views directly to City Administration which reports them to the Calgary Planning Commission (CPC). In other words, direct stakeholders do not go unheard in the early stages of the City’s process. Written responses submitted at this early stage are provided to the CPC and eventually to City Council. These stakeholders (and others whose actual or perceived conflicts of interest exclude them from WSCRCA decision-making) have the right to make independent submissions, both in writing and in person, to City Council.
2. With regard to major initiatives, the City follows a process of community consultation and engagement at which any member of the community is entitled to attend. City Administration reports the general substance of the information collected at these consultations to the CPC and, eventually, to City Council itself. Similarly, interested citizens and/or groups do not go unheard. They too have the right to make submissions in writing and in person to City Council.
3. Conducting a statistically valid survey involves (without being exhaustive as to all relevant factors) a great deal of time, care, effort and expertise. Some relevant factors may include:
a) Ensuring that the sample within the community at large is of sufficient size to be statistically valid;
b) Ensuring that there is a representative sample through all relevant demographic cross-sections within the community (age and gender being obvious examples);
c) Providing an accurate, unbiased and reasonably detailed factual foundation and historical context with regard to the issues upon which the survey is to be conducted (along with sufficient time to consider them) so that respondents are fairly and reasonably informed with regard to the nature of the question they are called upon to answer;
d) Measuring variables and preferences which may a determinative effect on the respondents answers (for example, traffic mitigation may be pivotal to whether or not a respondent approves of an otherwise acceptable development or the size and location of green space in the form of municipal reserve and environmental reserve may similarly affect another respondent’s response); and
e) Measuring the effect which potential consequences of approval or non-approval might have on the respondents’ answers (for example, increased tax burden if the City incurs an expense, an increased civic cost associated with delay or the potential for higher densities in developments of the future).
4. Electronic or social media polls or mass emails are, at best, of extremely limited value and may be misleading because:
a) They do not incorporate the measures discussed above;
b) There may be challenges in tracking the identity and location of respondents (obviously it is important to know whether the respondent is a WSCRCA member, resides within the community or is even a resident of Calgary at all and whether individuals are themselves recording multiple responses or doing so through related parties); and
c) Directly affected parties such as immediately adjacent landowners or other groups with specific interests may be highly motivated and much more likely to log in and/or respond. In other words, these online survey respondents self-select and the results are thus skewed in their favour.
5. It takes time, effort and expertise to develop and disseminate a survey. Moreover, it also takes time, effort and expertise to collect, analyze and report the results. These issues are highly burdensome in the best of circumstances and are all but impossible to properly address when time is short.
6. Persons who are in actual or perceived conflict of interest should not participate in any decision making with regard to whether or not a survey should be conducted at all, much less in relation to matters pertaining to its conception, structure, analysis or reporting. To repeat, parties with such interests do not go unheard, have the right to conduct their own surveys if they so choose and have other avenues through which they can make submissions (see items 1 and 2 above).
7. The WSCRCA is only able to function because of the care, concern, volunteer time and general community-mindedness of its members. Apart from the challenges discussed above, volunteer burn-out is an ongoing concern in community associations. The time-consuming process of conducting or monitoring truly valid and meaningful surveys is not a practical application of limited volunteer resources. Moreover, without minimizing the importance of any single issue that comes before the WSCRCA, it is important to bear in mind that a great many of these issues are of extremely high importance to at least some within the community: a survey based approach to some of these issues and not others raises the undesirable specter of volunteers being called upon to expend the considerable time and effort of attempting to explain (sometimes to very highly interested or even overtly angry parties) why one issue is of sufficient importance to warrant a survey but another is not.
8. Finally, the WSCRCA’s past practice of not conducting surveys on these issues does not prevent interested parties (whose very interests, to repeat, may raise actual or perceived conflict of interest concerns which exclude them from participation in CA decision making) from conducting surveys on their own account, explaining the methodology employed and justifying both their statistical validity and the degree of reliance that should be placed upon them by the City Administration, the CPC and City Council.