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Municipal land use planning

Municipal land use planning is one of many activities for which the municipality is responsible. These activities all influence the style of land use planning and the specifics of the plans that are created. The figure below partially illustrates this relationship.

It is important to keep this context in mind when assessing or developing the tools and procedures for a specific municipality.

The authority for municipal land use planning is set out in Part 17 of the Municipal Government Act (MGA). Part 17 provides for the preparation and adoption of plans, subdivision and development approval, and a variety of tools through which municipalities can achieve land use planning objectives. These regulatory provisions, however, do not cover the entire range of plans municipalities undertake as illustrated below. A brief discussion of plans prepared outside those described directly in the MGA is included in this section for reference.

Municipal plans and land use bylaws

The MGA establishes a hierarchy of plans beginning at the intermunicipal level and proceeding through a plan for the municipality as a whole (Municipal Development Plan) and plans at the sub municipal level (Area Structure Plan and Area Redevelopment Plan). These are called statutory plans. The MGA requires that a municipal development plan (MDP) be consistent with an intermunicipal development plan (IDP) and that an area structure plan (ASP) or area redevelopment plan (ARP) be consistent with an MDP and an IDP with respect to the land that is common to these plans. In the event of any inconsistency the IDP prevails over an MDP, ASP or ARP and an MDP prevails over and ASP or an ARP. Previously the legislation only required that statutory plans be consistent with each other. In view of these changes municipalities should review their statutory plans to determine if there any inconsistencies that should be resolved now to ensure that these do not become the subject of a court challenge to a planning decision at a future date. 

Municipal Development Plan

All municipalities will have until April 1, 2020 to prepare and adopt an MDP. Before the MGA was amended, only municipalities with a population of 3,500 persons or more were required to adopt an MDP.  The MDP must address the future use of land, the manner and proposals for future development, and the provision of required transportation systems and municipal services and facilities in the entire municipality. An MDP must also contain policies respecting development constraints, development in relation to sour gas facilities, the allocation of municipal and school reserves, and the protection of agricultural operations. Finally, an MDP may address proposals for the financing and programming of municipal infrastructure, the coordination of municipal programs relating to the development of the municipality, environmental matters, financial resources, economic development, and any other matter relating to the physical, social or economic development of the municipality. Municipal Affairs has developed a Guidebook for Preparing a Municipal Development Plan to assist municipalities with developing MDPs that meet the requirements in the MGA.  

The table of contents from the Airdrie Municipal Development Plan shown below illustrates how one municipality has responded to this broad mandate.

Airdrie Municipal Development Plan Table of Contents

Part 1: Growth Management

  • Social Well Being
    • Community services
    • Housing strategy
    • Emergency services
  • Environmental responsibility
  • Fiscal accountability
  • Sequence of development

Part 2: Land use

  • Residential development
  • Commercial
    • Central business district
    • Highway commercial
    • Neighbourhood commercial
    • Regional commercial
    • Mixed use commercial
  • Industrial
  • Parks, Schools and Open Space
    • Schools
    • Community Facilities
  • Agricultural operations

Part 3: Transportation and Utilities

  • Utilities Public and Private
  • Storm water retention drainage and flood mitigation
  • Transportation
    • Noise
    • Public transit
  • Waste management

Part 4: Implementation

  • Hierarchy of plans
  • The land use bylaw
  • Intermunicipal planning

These excerpts from the introduction to the plan provide an excellent explanation of the purpose and function of the plan.

The Airdrie City Plan contains broad policies that influence a wide range of municipal concerns. It is intended that these policies be interpreted as guides in the City’s development management decisions, providing a strategic perspective to such decisions.

The theme of the Plan is set in Part I. The City intends to guide its activities with regard to Growth Management through reference to the “Triple Bottom Line” of Social well-being, Environmental responsibility, and Fiscal accountability. While these sub-headings contain policies unto themselves, they also provide a theme for the rest of the policy sections of the Plan. Part 2 contains the City’s Growth Management policies as related to the different general categories of land use, while Part 3 deals with major infrastructure issues. Finally, Part 4 describes the means through which the Plan is to be implemented.

The Plan contains reference to several other City of Airdrie policy documents. Rather than attempt to re-state these policies, a detailed listing is included at the back of this Plan.  

Area structure plan

A municipality may adopt an Area Structure Plan (ASP) to provide a framework for the subsequent subdivision and development of an area of land including the sequence of development, proposed land uses, density of development and general location of major transportation routes and public utilities.

The ASP is a bridge between the very broad policies of the Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and the creation of individual lots and issuing of development permits. An ASP will provide an assessment of the existing land and development constraints, the policy context for development as well as the proposed land uses, density, pattern and sequence of development. This table of contents from the Lakeside Area Structure Plan in the Town of Blackfalds illustrates how one plan addresses these needs:


  • Purpose
  • Plan Area
  • Current Land Ownership
  • Policies & Relevant Planning Documents


  • Existing Conditions
  • Historic and Current Land Use
  • Adjacent and Surrounding Development
  • Existing Utilities


  • Range of Housing Opportunities
  • Public Open Spaces
  • Transportation
  • Community Image


  • Sanitary Sewer System
  • Storm Sewer System
  • Water Distribution System


  • Offsite Roadway Improvements
  • Phasing
  • Environmental Preservation
  • Redesignation and Subdivision

Area redevelopment plan

A municipality may adopt an Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) designating an area of land for the purpose of improving land or buildings, roads, public utilities or other services in the area. A municipality may also impose a redevelopment levy on development in the area for the purpose of providing land for municipal, park, school or new or expanded recreation facilities.

Many municipalities have adopted plans for the revitalization of older areas of their municipality, though not all have used the specific provisions of the Municipal Government Act (MGA). This excerpt from the City of Edmonton’s Jasper Place Area Redevelopment Plan provides an explanation for how this plan will work:

The Introduction provides an overview of the ARP process and the existing policy framework. It also summarizes the community input and technical studies that informed the ARP. The Plan Vision sets out the overall vision for Jasper Place and shows how the City policy framework, community input and technical studies have come together to form a set of guiding principles. Objectives and Policies set out land use and civic infrastructure maps and policies to help guide future land use decisions and City investment in Jasper Place. Amendments + Monitoring provides a long-term plan for the ARP to ensure it remains up to date and is successfully implemented. The Glossary provides definitions of key terms used in the ARP.

A recent plan for downtown Lacombe addressed issues under the following major headings:

  • Overview
  • Existing Conditions and Trends
  • Guiding Principles
  • General Urban Design Guidelines
  • Public Realm Plan
  • Development Concept

Land use bylaw

All municipalities in Alberta are required to prepare a land use bylaw to allow for the issuance of development permits for the use or development of land.

The structure of the land use bylaw

The land use bylaw divides the municipality into districts and provides for permitted and discretionary uses in each district. The rationale for defining the different districts revolves around three main principles:

  • Similar uses prefer to locate near each for reasons of efficiency, similar servicing standards and common design needs. Land use districting reinforces these benefits.
  • Some land uses pose considerable risk to health and safety. Districting establishes effective distances from such uses and allows conditions to be attached to permits to reduce the risk.
  • Districting allows appropriate aesthetic standards such as the height of buildings, distance between buildings and size of the lot to be established for each district.

Land use is typically divided into at least the following districts:

  • Residential
  • Commercial
  • Industrial
  • Institutional
  • Park/open space

Most bylaws have created further distinctions within these land use districts to better achieve the three principles of land use bylaws noted above and to reflect the specific needs and preferences of the community. These two examples for residential use from the Town of Olds and the Town of Cochrane provide an illustration:

Town of Olds

  • Low density residential district
  • General residential district
  • General residential narrow lot district
  • Medium density district
  • Manufactured home district
  • Country residential district
  • Country residential district A

Town of Cochrane

  • Residential Single Detached Dwelling District (R-1) Land Use
  • Residential Single and Two-Dwelling District (R-2) Land Use
  • Residential Medium Density Multi-Unit Dwellings (R-2X)
  • Residential Multi-Unit Dwellings District (R-3)
  • Residential Mid-Rise High Density Multi-Unit Dwellings District (R-4)
  • Residential High Density Multi-Unit Dwellings District (R-M)

Each district in the bylaw will then contain a list of uses that may be allowed in that district. The list of uses may be divided into permitted and discretionary uses. Permitted uses are those for which if the application meets all the provisions of the land use bylaw and is complete in accordance with MGA section 683.1, a development permit must be issued. Applications for discretionary uses, however, may be approved with or without conditions or refused. For example, the Town of Olds’ low density residential district permitted uses include detached dwellings, limited day homes and class 1 home occupations. Discretionary uses include neighbourhood day care facilities, class 2 home occupations, secondary suites and manufactured homes. Each district also prescribes a number of standards for development in the district including the size of the building, the minimum parcel area, front, rear and side yards and the percentage of the lot that may be covered by structures.

The challenge in providing a list of allowable uses and setting standards for the development of these uses is that land use bylaws cannot anticipate every type of use or design feature that might be proposed. As a result, municipalities must deal with proposals from landowners that do not meet the specific provisions of the land use bylaw.

This challenge can be mitigated by:

  • Allowing for discretion to be exercised within the bylaw itself 
  • Refusing the proposal (applicant may then appeal to the subdivision and development appeal board)
  • Amending the bylaw

Discretionary authority

Some discretionary authority is a necessary practicality. However, a question for council is how much discretion and how should this be achieved.

Discretion in a land use bylaw is achieved through:

  • Determining what uses, if any, will be discretionary in each district;
  • Determining whether standards can be relaxed. This is usually accomplished by allowing the development authority to vary a standard such as a side or front yard by a fixed amount such as up to ten percent of the distance allowed in the bylaw.

These features can be combined in different ways to create land use bylaws that have a great deal of flexibility or those that are more rigid but perhaps more transparent.  The table below shows elements of bylaws that emphasize flexibility and those that emphasize transparency.

General orientation of land use bylaws
Emphasis on Flexibility Emphasis on Transparency
Fewer land use districts More land use districts
More discretionary uses in each district Few or no discretionary uses in each district
Broad language to describe land use categories Tight definitions of land use categories
Broad discretion to vary standards Limited or no authority to vary standards

Some communities prefer land use bylaws that emphasize flexibility. Such bylaws can allow for a quick response to situations that don’t quite fit the provisions of the bylaw. The exercise of discretion however can be a cause for concern with residents leading to more appeals to the subdivision and development appeal board.  Bylaws that are more transparent give the public greater certainty about what kinds of development will be approved. This can result, however, in more requests to amend the land use bylaw.

Direct control

A direct control district sets out the general intent for land use in that district, and may provide for some broad standards of development. This allows an applicant to submit an application for a use and standard of development that does not fit the bylaw but may nonetheless be an appropriate development for that particular parcel of land. The use of direct control districts is normally limited to special situations involving a more detailed consideration of the design and impact of the development.

Non-conforming uses

A further complication arises with land use bylaws when the existing use of land or the standards to which it was built (front yard, side yard, site coverage etc.) do not comply with the use of land or standards permitted in the land use bylaw. This may be deliberate where the intention is to see the land use eventually change in accordance with a plan or it may be a result of the bylaw not being able to meet all the unique circumstances of actual development. Such developments are classified as non-conforming. Non-conforming uses may either be legal – meaning that they were legally constructed prior to the current provisions of the bylaw being adopted, or they may be illegal – meaning that they were constructed without a permit.

The MGA provides that a non-conforming use or building may continue but if it is discontinued for more than 6 months the use of the land or building must conform with the land use bylaw. A non-conforming building may not be added to or altered except to make it a conforming building, for routine maintenance, or in accordance with minor variance powers permitted in the land use bylaw. If more than 75 percent of the value of a non-conforming building is destroyed it may not be rebuilt or repaired except in accordance with the land use bylaw.

Performance based zoning

A recent trend in land use bylaws is to move away from the traditional strict separation of land use into residential, commercial, and industrial districts and encourage more mixed use developments. The emphasis is on creating more lively and integrated environments by mixing place of residence, employment and retail uses. Compatibility of land use is based on performance criteria that address concerns such as noise, traffic, parking, lighting and other factors through design and conditions of approval. Performance based zoning can be incorporated into land use categories or by creating specific mixed uses districts.