Alberta's land rush chaos
Province looks for plan to deal with boom
Saturday, February 10, 2007
CREDIT: Ted Jacob, Calgary Herald
Glenn Simon owns Glenn's Family Restaurant in Gasoline Alley, in thriving Red Deer County. Meanwhile, the city of Red Deer is turning away development because it can't annex land. "They might as well put a 'closed for business' sign up," Glenn says.
Red Deer's Gasoline Alley flickers with an endless stream of brake lights. Day and night, vehicles pull in and out. Drivers stop for fuel, a dash to the washroom or a cup of coffee for the road.
In recent years, the alley has morphed into more than just a pit stop. Alberta's prosperity has brought a proliferation of fast food restaurants, car dealerships and big box stores. Soon a $7.5-million, 12-screen movie theatre -- Red Deer's largest -- will open near Costco.
And this is only the beginning of Red Deer County's plans.
"The changes are magnificent. The county has done a great job," boasts Glenn Simon, whose family restaurant bearing his name has been a mainstay on the strip for 20 years.
The City of Red Deer, he adds, is turning development away because it lacks the land.
"They might as well put a 'closed for business' sign up."
Gasoline Alley, the gateway to Red Deer, has become the crossroads of a made-in- Alberta turf war.
The busy strip fuels the county's economic engine, providing roughly 90 per cent of its industrial and commercial revenue. The county, though, also envisions raising a city-like village of up to 8,000 residents along the alley, complete with a retail square and a large school one day.
But not if the city gets its way.
Alberta's third-largest city, fast approaching 100,000 residents, has run out of land for commercial and industrial development. Annexation talks with the neighbouring county haven't gone well, and now a tug of war over Gasoline Alley has erupted.
The dispute has turned so fractious that Red Deer business leaders have written to
Alberta's new premier and cabinet, asking the provincial government to step in.
They have the ear of at least one local Tory MLA, Mary Anne Jablonski, who is drafting a private member's bill calling for a return to regional planning -- and not just in Red Deer.
"The system," Jablonski says, "has broken down."
Across Alberta, people are fighting over land: cities versus counties; energy companies versus ranchers; quad riders versus hikers.
As Alberta's economy roars in overdrive, these squabbles are increasingly turning into grudge matches, resolved only after lengthy public hearings or legal action.
In the meantime, some development projects have stalled. Others are gearing up despite opposition from residents concerned about the impact on land and water.
For the average Albertan, the turf wars are spilling into daily life, whether it's rising traffic jams because of increasing sprawl, uncertainty over drinking water or logging near hiking trails.
Red Deer's struggles are not an anomaly.
They're a symptom, political observers contend, of the collision course the province is on unless it creates a road map for development of the Alberta landscape -- not just for tomorrow, but 50 and 100 years from now.
Alberta can't just keep racing to keep up with the boom, Liberal Leader Kevin Taft says.
"It's just about a free-for-all out there right now, and it's causing all kinds of problems," Taft says as he travels to Red Deer for a meeting.
"With the economic boom, land use decisions are getting pushed through every day and there's no long-term strategy.
"Clearly, we need rules on who can play in what parts of the sandbox."
Premier Ed Stelmach acknowledges a comprehensive blueprint for land management is needed, and promises to complete one shortly.
The Alberta government began creating such a plan last year, setting up an office called Sustainable Resource and Environmental Management and allotting a budget of $1 million a year to exclusively address this topic.
Staff from six government departments are involved in developing the land use framework. They've looked at policies in other provinces and in the United States, but no model seems right for Alberta, says assistant deputy minister
Morris Seiferling, who's directing the land plan effort.
The big difference here is oil and gas lies under almost every bit of the land. The question then becomes, how much of Alberta should be developed?
Official debates on this and other land use questions have so far taken place behind closed doors amongst government officials, municipalities, industry representatives, aboriginals and landowner groups. Next month, average Albertans will get their say in a round of public forums and an online survey.
"I think that Albertans, once they have an opportunity to talk about what they would like to see in the province of Alberta in terms of the rules of development, it may in many ways deal with the kind of pressures between urban-rural, oil and gas, and agriculture and forestry," Stelmach says. "There's also these questions being raised of how much area we will protect of Alberta in the future?"
At the moment, virtually nothing in the province is off limits to energy development, except national parks.
Even some areas designated by the province in 1995 for environmental protection -- Rumsey Natural Area, for instance, the largest tract of aspen parkland in the world, southeast of Red Deer -- are open to new drilling, as long as certain conditions are met.
Alberta's roots are soaked in oil and gas, but even by its own standards, the recent spurt is dizzying. Despite a fall in natural gas prices, more oil and gas wells were drilled last year than any year before -- slightly more than 22,000.
At the same time, home construction in many Alberta cities set a record last year as more people than ever moved into the province, raising its population to nearly 3.4 million.
"The pressures of growth are putting some real strains on the land base of the province," says Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, a think-tank that has been examining land use challenges.
"Because energy development is taking place pretty much across the province, I do believe it's time to step back. . . . Can (the land) support everything or do we have to limit some uses in certain areas?
"This is very tough stuff for the provincial government to do. This is not easy politics."
As a backbench Tory MLA, Ted Morton often heard from residents concerned about land conflicts in his Foothills-Rocky View constituency. It's one of the fastest-growing rural regions in the country, butting up against the fastest-growing major city, Calgary.
Now, as the new sustainable resource development minister, Morton has taken over the reins of the land use framework. The scope of the strategy hasn't yet been set, but the government hopes to unveil its vision by year's end.
Morton's vision includes improving the government system for dealing with development proposals.
"Rather than having sort of a czar . . . of land use planning that sits on a throne and makes the final decision, I think what's more likely is you'll see some criteria for choosing between competing land uses," he says.
Canada's energy lobby welcomes the land review, hoping it'll provide more clarity and certainty in the face of rising resistance from landowners to accept drilling on their land.
More and more, these disputes are landing before the province's energy watchdog, the Energy and Utilities Board.
"Too often we are seeing questions coming to the EUB that are really policy questions," says David Pryce, a vice-president for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Indeed, last year saw the watchdog deal with some prominent cases that delved into the realm of public policy.
For example, Compton Petroleum's now-abandoned sour gas proposal for the southeastern outskirts of Calgary; the same company's approved application to drill an exploratory well in the Eastern Slopes; and the approval of Suncor's oilsands expansion, despite protests from the region's own mayor that Fort McMurray is crumbling under the weight of the boom.
In its Suncor decision, the EUB acknowledged the massive project had the potential to further strain public infrastructure and services in the region.
"The EUB believes that the responsible government agencies are aware of and are responding to a number of the socioeconomic impacts," the regulator wrote.
Critics, however, contend no one in government is examining the total effects of all the projects on the environment and communities.
Environment Minister Rob Renner realizes a policy gap exists, saying the province hasn't done a good job of considering cumulative impacts.
"Historically, we have looked at projects on a very prescriptive, one-off basis," Renner explains.
"We have been prescriptive to the point of not considering cumulative impacts, to the point where we no longer have control of cumulative impacts."
According to Morton, four challenges in particular are of pressing concern.
The size and scope of the oilsands are bigger than any industrial development Alberta has ever undertaken, he says.
In the Eastern Slopes, tolerance for natural resource development has eroded as more Albertans flock to the mountains for recreational getaways. At the same time, awareness of the mountains' importance on Alberta's water supply is growing.
In the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, growth in population and drilling for coal bed methane, a natural gas found in coal seams, is straining the landscape.
"While everybody values the prosperity that the economic development has brought, they want to strike the correct balance between economic prosperity and the value that the mountains and the foothills and the prairies and the northern forest hold for so many Albertans," Morton says.
Red Deer lies smack dab in the middle of the surging Calgary-Edmonton corridor. The region's boom in population and wealth has been staggering.
Growing faster than any other part of the province, the 400-kilometre stretch has become home to more than 2.2 million people, roughly three-quarters of all Albertans. By 2105 -- the province's bicentennial -- 10 to 12 million people are expected to live in Alberta, most in the corridor.
In their midst, at least 50,000 methane wells are pegged to be drilled in coal formations between the province's three largest cities. And all this population and industrial growth are slated to happen atop the province's best farmland.
Can it all co-exist?
"Probably not comfortably," Morton says.
"If you start overlaying all the possible uses on the same sort of surface or map, suddenly it looks like a mess, and that's where all the quality of life issues come in."
For residents in the countryside, the worries centre on losing their way of life to industrialization and ever-expanding cities. In urban centres, a collision course of growth is bringing increased traffic jams, straining social services and raising the cost of living the Alberta dream.
"Win-win scenarios are impossible. There are trade-offs," contends Brad Stelfox, a land use expert who has developed a possible picture of Alberta at 2055 and 2105. "In a superheated economy like Alberta, with so much going on, we are everyday seeing the trade-offs.
"We have almost no choice but to operate in triage."
Stelfox is proposing dividing the province into regions, each with its own set of priorities.
For instance, energy activity could be the priority for the north; residential development between Calgary and Edmonton; and watershed, wildlife and ranchland protection in the Eastern Slopes.
But Pryce of Canada's energy lobby says the province should consider the cost of declaring parts of Alberta out of bounds to the energy industry. "What are," he asks "the implications for not developing it?"
This week, a report by the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary showed the oil and gas industry has accounted for more than half of Alberta's entire economy since 1971.
Still, almost everyone agrees there are implications for Alberta if the government fails to develop a land plan.
"There is a real risk of damaging the land base in the province that may not be repairable," says Gibbins of the Canada West Foundation.
The pitfalls to delivering a blueprint are numerous, though. It could get too complex, Gibbins says. The political will to see it through could be lacking, Liberal Leader Taft offers.
Or, Stelfox says, in an attempt to please everyone and offer a "win-win scenario," Alberta could end up with a toothless land use plan.
Back in Red Deer, there's no easing in sight to the tensions between the city and its neighbouring county. Both sides have dug in their heels, lines in the sandbox drawn.
"If you look at the Red Deer region, Red Deer County is fairly aggressively developing on our border," says city Coun. Cindy Jeffries. "Should rural municipalities be in the business of being urban? We don't think so."
County Reeve Earl Kinsella won't even mention the city by name, but he's clear on his stand on Gasoline Alley.
"We would not give it up," he bluntly says. "It's too big of a part of the county to give up."
None of this is good for business, frets Mitch Thomson, president of the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce.
The region's business leaders are calling on the province to step in and settle the dispute. They want a rule book for managing land.
"We feel the debate has gone on long enough," Thomson says. "We need to have a mechanism to force them to come to a resolution."
Residents are also feeling the strain. To accommodate the city's population growth and make up for its lack of commercial and industrial land, Red Deer residents are facing a 9.76 per cent municipal tax increase this year.
Meanwhile in the county, a group of residents met this week to talk about possibly forming their own rural district, feeling the county is too focused on urban development -- like Gasoline Alley.
At Glenn Simon's restaurant, known for its 175 varieties of tea, the ongoing dispute over the strip has Simon boiling with frustration, too.
His family has counted on the alley for its livelihood for decades. Along with Glenn's Family Restaurant, his son and daughter run the Donut Mill, and his sister owns a gift shop.
The time for a land plan has come, Simon says.
"It's needed. And it's needed yesterday."
When it began: Alberta's 2005 provincial budget established the
initiative to create a comprehensive policy for managing land and development decisions across the province. Six government departments are working on the framework.
What's been done so far:
A government office, Sustainable Resource and Environmental Management, was created to spearhead the work. With a budget of roughly a $1 million a year, the office spent last year consulting municipalities, industry representatives, ranchers, aboriginal groups and academics in closed-door meetings.
Questions for Albertans
- Are we ready to discuss trade-offs
between population growth, resource development and social responsibility?
- Are we willing to slow down growth, if necessary, to preserve social, economic and environmental sustainability?
- Are we willing to accept a process for making tradeoffs between ecological integrity, economic prosperity and quality of life?
- Does Alberta have a responsibility
to the rest of Canada and the world to supply the energy and food they need to maintain their quality of life?
When will the public have a say?
Consultations will take place between March 5 and 23 at public forums throughout the province. An online survey will also be done.
When will the framework be completed?
The province expects to have a blueprint ready by year's end. The scope of the framework, however, hasn't been established yet.
For more information:
Go to www.landuse.gov.ab.ca
Source: Government of Alberta
With files from Jason Fekete
This story features a factbox "Land-use framework ".
© The Calgary Herald 2007
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