Until the adoption of the Capital Region Board regulation, regional planning at the municipal level was entirely voluntary. Municipalities were required to consider adjacent municipalities in their planning but formal arrangements were left to each municipality. Many municipalities used their natural person powers to enter into agreements with their neighbours to address shared services such as utilities, fire protection, recreation or other matters of mutual interest. The Municipal Government Act (MGA) provides two voluntary formal mechanisms for addressing intermunicipal relations. Regional Service commissions are aimed specifically at providing for shared services. These arrangements can significantly affect land use planning options for the affected municipalities. The other mechanism, intermunicipal development plans, is specifically aimed at land use.
Regional service commissions
A Regional Services Commission (RSC) is a corporate entity through which municipalities partner to provide services regionally. Commissions must include at least two municipal entities and can include First Nations reserves, Métis settlements or armed forces bases. Formation of a regional service commission is entirely voluntary, however, formal establishment requires a provincial regulation which sets out the membership, services that are to be provided, the service area, and a number of other operating and reporting requirements.
There are currently about 70 RSCs in Alberta. Many were initially established to provide water, wastewater, or solid waste services. More recently the range of services provided has expanded to include such matters as transit, emergency services, airports, assessment and land use planning services. Most involve a limited number of partners (2-5 members), but some are quite large involving over 30 members. The establishment of RSCs has been encouraged through provincial government funding and regulatory requirements for solid waste, water, and sewer services that emphasized regional service delivery. RSCs have proved to be an effective means of service delivery in support of sound land use planning.
Intermunicipal development plan
Two or more municipalities may jointly adopt an intermunicipal development plan (IDP) for lands lying within the municipalities to provide for the future land use, manner of and proposals for future development and any other matter relating to the physical, social or economic development of the area. While an IDP is not mandatory, if one is not adopted, the municipality must, in its own municipal development plan, address the coordination of land use, future growth pattern and infrastructure with adjacent municipalities.
There is no central record of the number of IDPs that have been adopted to date, but there are likely 75 or more. Most plans are between an urban and a rural municipality and focus on a limited area surrounding the urban municipality. More recently IDPs have been used to address multi-municipal planning issues. Examples include the plan between The City of Medicine Hat, Town of Redcliff, and Cypress County and the Buffalo Lake Intermunicipal Development Plan involving three rural municipalities and two summer villages.
This statement from the Sylvan Lake- Red Deer County IDP outlines the intent of the plan:
An IDP is a broad-based policy document that is designed to ensure that development, usually in and around an urban municipality, takes place in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner without significant unnecessary costs and unacceptable negative impacts on either municipality.
The plan goes on to identify some of the benefits of intermunicipal planning as follows:
- Building positive and mutually beneficial relationships between municipalities;
- Recognizing the Town and surrounding rural areas as one diverse, mutually supporting community;
- Encouraging dialogue to reduce the potential for land use conflicts and foster a better understanding of each other’s interests and views;
- Achieving a common purpose for growth and development in the broader area which is supportive of intermunicipal agreements and other cooperative initiatives in the provision of municipal services;
- Promoting certainty for rural land use and development activities by designating and safeguarding areas for continued rural development;
- Confirming future urban growth directions and land requirements and allowing for the efficient and economical expansion of the town;
- Enabling both parties to jointly consider the effects that a specific development in one municipality might have on the other;
- Promoting effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of services including such things as coordinating of transportation planning; and
- Obtaining certainty around the types of land use allowed within the urban fringe and the development standards that will be applied.
The plan carries out the intent under the following main headings:
- Growth management
- Economic development and Fiscal health
- Potential Joint Development Area
- Land use Concept
- Utility Services
- Plan Implementation and Administration
A final section of the plan includes a Dispute Resolution Flow Chart.
AUMA and IDPs
As part of the Municipal Government Act review, AUMA and AAMDC made a joint submission to the province advocating that the Act be amended to require mandatory intermunicipal development plans.
As a binding agreement, intermunicipal development plans help to guide the process of development regionally, which is important given Alberta’s rapid population growth. These plans can address regional growth goals, economic development, or infrastructure requirements. In 2015, the province announced Bill 20 which will create a defined hierarchy of plans, placing intermunicipal development plans at the top. This makes this change even more important, as intermunicipal development plans will be essential to guide growth and development throughout municipal regions.
Urban municipalities are limited in their ability to accommodate growth within their boundaries. While there is a growing emphasis on increasing densities for both cost and environmental benefits, at some point urban municipalities may need to look at extending their boundaries. Typically, this occurs through annexation of land from an adjacent rural municipality.
Long term growth directions are generally established in the municipal development plan and in an intermunicipal development plan where one has been prepared. Applications for annexation are made to the Municipal Government Board (MGB). In making its decision the Board will look at a number of factors including the need for the land, whether the annexation is a logical extension of development and servicing, and the extent to which there is intermunicipal cooperation. The MGB has established a list of 15 annexation principles to guide municipalities in preparing for annexation.
The MGB also provides an overview of the annexation process, an application checklist and rules and procedures for annexation on its website.
AUMA and annexation
As part of AUMA’s submissions to the MGA review, we are calling for the province to clarify regulations regarding annexations. Annexation is at its most fundamental a change in boundaries between two municipalities. Despite this simple premise, the annexation process has become increasingly contentious in recent years with a number of high profile contested annexations. The current process for annexation does not address the growth pressures faced by municipalities and is onerous.
AUMA is seeking additional changes such as expedited processes for annexations that are negotiated in an IDP, criteria that look at land use policies of both the initiating and responding municipality, extending the target annexation period from 25 to 50 years, and additional conflict resolution mechanisms around the issue of compensation. Further details are outlined in a letter AUMA’s president sent to the Minister of Municipal Affairs in September 2015.