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Some current land use planning challenges

Flood plains

Many Alberta municipalities are located near water bodies for ease of communication and transport. Periodic flooding has been a part of these communities since their inception. The Municipal Government Act (MGA) requires municipalities to take this into account when approving municipal land use plans and deciding on subdivision and development permit applications. Consideration begins with the municipal development plan (MDP). The MDP may address environmental matters and contain statements regarding any development constraints. Where flooding is likely to occur in a municipality, the MDP typically devotes a section to describing the nature of the flooding, the area affected, and policies regarding development in the area.

In deciding on an application for subdivision the subdivision authority must consider any potential for flooding. A land use bylaw may establish specific provisions regarding the development of buildings in areas subject to flooding. A joint federal provincial program led to sophisticated flood plain mapping being prepared for a number of Alberta communities. This mapping process identified appropriate land uses for areas affected by flooding, which municipalities were encouraged to incorporate into their MDPs and land use bylaws.

Recent experience with flooding in southern Alberta identified a need for more specific provisions. An amendment to the MGA in 2013 enables the adoption of specific regulations relating to the development of land in flood plains. Consultations on the proposed regulations were completed in 2014. The discussion paper produced by the Floodway Development Regulation Task Force (FDRTF) noted that once the proposed Floodway Development Regulation is in force:  

Municipalities will need to ensure that their statutory plans and land use bylaws are consistent with provisions of the Floodway Development Regulation, where applicable.  

  • Municipalities may not approve an application for subdivision in a floodway if the application is inconsistent with the provisions of the Regulation.  
  • Municipalities may not issue a development permit for any use or development of vacant land in a floodway if the proposed development is inconsistent with the provisions of the regulation.

Floodway typically include the river channels and overbank areas. The FDRTF’s discussion paper identifies four areas for consideration in drafting the regulation:

  • New development in floodways (prohibitions and authorized uses)
  • Existing development in floodways (prohibitions and authorized uses and development)
  • Exemption provisions; and
  • Other related discussions.

Consensus was reached in a number of areas including:

  • No new development should be constructed in the floodway;
  • Elevating a building (above a determined flood level) as a form of mitigation above flood waters in a flood way is not considered appropriate;
  • There is to be no redevelopment or additions to existing buildings in the floodway that will result in expanding the building footprint and/or changing the building use;
  • There should be no infill development in the floodway; and,
  • Any exemptions for floodway areas need to be based on an agreed set of criteria and need to demonstrate appropriate mitigation measures that are sufficient enough to reduce/minimize risk to life and property.

The regulation has not been finalized. The report can be viewed at http://www.municipalaffairs.alberta.ca/1934

Energy projects

Energy developments pose a significant challenge for urban communities. As noted previously, oil and gas wells and pipelines are exempt from the requirements of the planning provisions of the Municipal Government Act (MGA). The relationship to energy projects is considered here under three headings: new facilities, existing facilities, and abandoned facilities.

New facilities

Access to oil and gas resources in Alberta is obtained either through lease of exploration rights from the province or negotiation with private holders of titles to minerals. Once a company has obtained the right to explore it must obtain the approval of the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) before any development occurs. The AER has set out in Directive 056: Energy Development Applications and Schedules the requirements and procedures for filing a license application to construct or operate any petroleum industry energy development that includes facilities, pipelines, or wells. The directive includes requirements for engaging with affected parties and notes that local authorities play an important part in the plan for orderly land use and should be involved at an early stage in planning an energy development and participant involvement program. Applicants are encouraged to resolve any outstanding concerns before filing an application with the AER. If the concerns cannot be addressed the applicant must file a non-routine application for reasons of participant involvement, and include a written summary of concerns for AER review.

Resident concerns typically relate to safety, odours, and impact on land values. Of particular concern are facilities that deal with sour gas. When preparing a municipal development plan a municipality may include statements considering development constraints and must contain policies compatible with the Subdivision and Development Regulation to provide guidance on the type and location of land uses adjacent to sour gas facilities. Some municipalities have established the position of oil and gas coordinator in dealing with energy projects.

Existing facilities

The AER is responsible for identifying and classifying sour gas facilities. A planning authority must not approve an application unless it is consistent with setback distances from sour gas facilities as identified by the AER. A planning authority must not approve an application that is within 100 meters of an existing oil or gas well unless a lesser distance is approved by the AER. There is no setback required from pipelines apart from the right of way of the pipeline unless the pipeline is identified as a sour gas facility in which case setback distances will be established by the AER.

Abandoned facilities

The risk from abandoned wells is extremely low. However, such wells are not visible from the surface and thus pose a risk to excavation and construction equipment and the safety of the operator if they are not properly located. Abandoned wells rarely require maintenance, but adequate access to the site needs to be maintained should a leak occur. The Subdivision and Development Regulation requires municipalities to identify abandoned wells as part of a subdivision or development permit application review. Setbacks established by the AER are to be applied to prevent accidental contact with a wellbore, and to allow for well access if required. Detailed procedures and requirements are set out in Municipal Affairs information bulletins, which are available here.

Contaminated sites

Contaminated sites represent potentially significant risks to human health and the environment. The Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act administered by Alberta Environment and Parks sets out the regulatory requirements surrounding substance release, remediation, and reclamation. Municipalities have a responsibility to determine whether a site is suitable for the intended use.

Municipalities should establish appropriate policies in their municipal development plans respecting the assessment of land prior to approving an area structure plan, plan of subdivision, or issuing a development permit.

The City of Edmonton has recently adopted and published an Environmental Site Assessment Guidebook. The report identifies four different stages of investigation which are briefly described below:

  • An Environmental Overview is used solely for the purpose of area structure plans.
  • Phase I ESA involves a non-intrusive desktop review of the current and historical environmental information relevant to the site.
  • Phase II ESA involves intrusive investigation and delineation of areas of potential environmental concern for contaminants through characterization of soil and groundwater. This must be conducted if recommendations in the Phase I ESA indicate that areas of potential environmental concerns are present on the site or if the City (Environmental Energy and Coordination Unit) believes that it is warranted.
  • Phase IIII ESA, which involves remediation and/or exposure control, includes various type of remediation technology which may include excavation and disposal, soil vapour extraction, risk management and/or exposure control of the site or a combination of the above.

The report then relates the different stages of investigation to each stage of the planning approval process. These are briefly described below:

  • Area structure plan – an environmental overview is required.
  • Rezoning – a level 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) is required if the existing zoning is industrial, commercial, urban service, agricultural and reserve or special area. A level 1 ESA is not normally required if the existing zoning is exclusively residential.
  • Subdivisions – a level 1 ESA should cover the entire parcel.
  • Development permit – a level 1 ESA is required if the development officer believes contaminants exist.

A detailed description of the contents of each level of assessment is provided in the report.

The City of Lethbridge’s Sunridge Subdivision provides an example of an environmental site assessment.

Brownfields

Brownfields are derelict properties where past actions have resulted in actual or perceived contamination that is preventing redevelopment. Thousands of these properties blight main streets and neighborhoods in municipalities across Alberta.

At a time of economic uncertainty and increased concern about the state of the environment, brownfield redevelopment provides an opportunity for municipalities, the province, and the private sector to collaborate on solutions that enable efficient land use, promote economic development, and improve Alberta’s reputation as a responsible steward of natural resources.

AUMA has developed an online hub to provide municipalities with information on legislation, policies, best practices, and resources related to brownfield redevelopment. The Brownfields Hub also profiles AUMA’s advocacy efforts urging the province to address barriers to redevelopment. 

Agriculture

Agriculture is an essential part of Alberta's economy and identity. In recent decades the agricultural sector has been under increasing pressure from expanding rural and urban developments. This has resulted in the permanent loss of some of the province’s most productive farm and ranch lands. 

In response to this issue, the Alberta Land Institute (an independent, non-partisan research institute based at the University of Alberta that connects research and policy for better land management) commissioned a study to examine the extent of agricultural land conversation and fragmentation in the province. The first deliverable of this 3 year study was a report detailing A Review of Land cover Patterns from 2000-2012 and Land use Policy.

Using high resolution satellite imagery, the review found that over twelve years approximately 123,900 hectares (0.82 percent) of the agricultural land base in the province was converted for development. While this loss may seem minor on a provincial scale, the concentration of development occurred in the Calgary-Edmonton Corridor. Within this region, about 38,250 hectares (4.3 percent) of the agricultural land was converted. The review also found that agricultural land conversion is happening at a significant level on the highest quality agricultural land within in the province. Of the agricultural land converted, 68.4 percent was from the two highest quality categories of agricultural land.  

The Alberta Land Institute’s review also looked at land use policies in the province. It concluded that one of the major issues is the disconnect between goals and directives to protect agricultural land set out in policy and the decisions made in practice. Short-term pressures and gains appear to override working towards long-term objectives. For example, the Municipal Government Act requires that municipalities include protection of agricultural operations in their Municipal Development Plans and bylaw. While many MDPs include protection of agricultural land, municipalities are not bound to deliver on the contents of MDPs. Councils and local planners must be on board with the fundamental goals of land preservation in order to engage in proper implementation. The Alberta Land Institute’s paper suggests that performance with respect to preserving agricultural lands might be improved if the provincial government were to follow-up on municipal plans.

In addition, the review points to land use tools that municipalities can use to including cluster zoning, purchase of conservation easements, tradeable development credits, urban growth boundaries and more comprehensive planning. These tools are featured in the Efficient Use of Land Tools Compendium as well as on the Conservation and Stewardship Tools webpage developed by Alberta’s Land Use Secretariat to support land use decisions that reduce the footprint of human activities on Alberta’s landscape. 

Net Change in Agricultural Land 2000-2012 (Source: the Alberta Land Institute)

While development may be eating away at traditional agricultural land, many municipalities are finding ways of integrating agriculture into urbanized areas. There is increasing recognition of the importance of food in building community and identification of urban agriculture as an opportunity to increase the sustainability and quality-of-life of communities, as well as a means for economic development.

For example, in 2012 The City of Edmonton adopted fresh: Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy to guide the City towards the vision of “a resilient food and agriculture system that contributes to the local economy and the overall cultural, financial, social and environmental sustainability of the city.”

The City has already taken steps put that vision into action through

  • Approving a zoning bylaw change to enable more urban agriculture activities throughout the city.
  • Forming the Edmonton Food Council to shape the future of food and urban agriculture in Edmonton.
  • Permitting bee keeping  through a license process.
  • Conducting urban hens pilot project! 
  • Partnering with Northlands to increase local food purchasing of major distributors and institutions.

In 2014 the City of Airdrie launched an urban agriculture pilot project which includes a community orchards initiative and a backyard hens pilot program. The City also promotes the local farmers market, community gardening, and the Food Bank’s Plant a Row Grow a Row program where residents can share some produce from their home gardens with the Food Bank.

The City of Red Deer has adopted a Chicken Bylaw to regulate and control the keeping of chickens on a property within an urban area. This bylaw requires residents to apply for and maintain a chicken license on an annual basis.

(Photo Source: City of Red Deer)

Private Property Rights

Municipalities may wonder how far they can go in regulating private land and under what circumstances they may need to provide financial compensation to landowners impacted by municipal decisions.

The Alberta Land Institute (ALI) has developed an online Guide to Property Rights describing the scope of property rights held by landowners in Alberta and addresses issues of expropriation, regulation of property rights, and compensation.

The Guide to Property Rights also describes changes to the property rights framework arising from provincial legislation, including the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA). While the guide seeks to correct the myth that ALSA grants powers to the provincial Cabinet that are inconsistent with Canadian legal tradition, it also points out the need for greater clarity around what is eligible for compensation.

Environmental Impact Assessments

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a process to predict the impact of projects on the environment before they are carried out. In Alberta, projects may trigger a provincial or federal EIA depend ending on what matters the project will touch on. Municipal projects such as dams have the potential to trigger both a provincial and federal EIA, leading to a long and resource intensive process before the project can be completed.

Provincial Environmental Impact Assessments

The current EIA process in Alberta is based on the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, with processes set out in the Environmental Assessment Regulation and activities that trigger an EIA set out in the Mandatory and Exempted Activities Regulation. Some activities may also trigger an EIA under the Water Act. EIAs for energy resources activities such as upstream oil, oil sands, natural gas, and coal development are processed separately by the Alberta Energy regulator. Activities that trigger a mandatory provincial EIA in Alberta include:

  • dams greater than 15 metres in height;
  • water reservoirs with a capacity greater than 30 million m3;
  • hydroelectric plants that generate over 100MW; and,
  • landfills that accept hazardous waste.

In preparing a provincial EIA in Alberta, proponents must assemble a detailed list of documents including a plan and guidelines for First Nations consultation, project summary tables and location maps, terms of reference for the EIA, and a proposal for how the public will be notified about the terms of reference. The proponent uses the finalized terms of reference to complete their full EIA report, which is then submitted to the provincial Environmental Assessment team for a technical review. This team decides whether or not the EIA report is complete, and forwards it on to a regulatory board to decide whether the proposal is in the public interest.

Click here for more information on the provincial EIA process.

Federal Environmental Impact Assessments

The current federal EIA process is based in the 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Pursuant to this Act, the federal government developed a regulation to designate physical activities that automatically trigger a federal EIA. Example projects that trigger federal EIAs include:

  • fossil fuel electrical generating facilities with a capacity of 200MW or more;
  • dams or dykes that result in a reservoir of 1500ha or more;
  • structures that divert 10,000,000m3/year of water from a natural water body into another natural water body;
  • public highways requiring 50 km or more of new right of way;
  • aerodromes in built-up areas of cities or towns; and
  • interprovincial bridges or tunnels.

As well, the CEAA states that environmental effects of projects must be taken into account if they result in changes impacting areas under federal jurisdiction such as fish or migratory birds, changes on federal lands or outside the province where the project is carried out, or effects on Indigenous peoples. These clauses are highly important to municipalities, as numerous municipal projects may contain one or more of these impacts. For instance, road construction over migratory bird habitat and bridge or dam construction through navigable waterways or fish habitats may trigger a federal EIA.

Click here for more information on the federal EIA process.