Moving from Conversion to Conservation: Intermunicipal Planning and Agricultural Lands

Moving from Conversion to Conservation: Intermunicipal Planning and Agricultural Lands

Alberta has lost and continues to lose valuable agricultural lands.  As found in the Alberta Land Institute’s Economic Evaluation of Farmland Conversion and Fragmentation in Alberta, Summary of Findings (the “ALI Report”), there has been significant conversion of prime agricultural land into developed uses [more detail about the ALI Report can be found in our previous post].  Both farmland and natural areas in the Edmonton-Calgary Corridor have become significantly more fragmented between 1984 and 2013.  The ALI Report also noted that, while there was a small reduction in farmland fragmentation between 2000 and 2012 in the Edmonton-Calgary Corridor, there was increased fragmentation around Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer in that same time period.

Loss of agricultural lands is, in part, a matter of long-term planning that crosses municipal boundaries.  In this blog, we look recent amendments to the Municipal Government Act which are designed to facilitate and improve intermunicipal planning and cooperation for all municipalities.

Intermunicipal Planning and Collaboration Provisions in the Municipal Government Act

The provisions dealing with intermunicipal cooperation are found in section 631 and 631.1, and Parts 17.1 and 17.2.   Sections 631 and 631.1 require Intermunicipal Development Plans.  Part 17.1 enables the establishment of Growth Management Boards.  To date, there are two Growth Management Boards:  the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board (EMRB) and the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board (CMRB).  Part 17.2 requires the development of Intermunicipal Collaboration Frameworks.

When two or more municipalities have common boundaries and are NOT members of a growth region, they MUST adopt an intermunicipal development plan (IDP).  Municipalities not required to adopt an IDP may choose to do so.  An IDP applies to the land within the boundaries of the municipalities as they consider necessary and must address (among other things):

  1.  the future land use within the area,
  2. the manner of and the proposals for future development in the area,
  3. environmental matters within the area, either generally or specifically, and
  4. any other matter related to the physical, social or economic development of the area that the municipal councils consider necessary.

The purpose of Part 17.1 is to establish growth management boards for the Edmonton and Calgary regions, and to enable 2 or more municipalities to establish a growth management board on a voluntary basis.  As mentioned above, the EMRB and CMRB have already been established pursuant to the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board Regulation and the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board Regulation.  The mandate of both Boards includes ensure environmentally responsible land-use planning, growth management and efficient use of land.  Each Board is tasked with the development of a Growth Plan which must, among other things, identify agricultural lands and provide policies regarding the conservation of agricultural lands.

Part 17.2 requires the development of Intermunicipal Collaboration Frameworks.  These Frameworks are intended to:

  1. provide for the integrated and strategic planning, delivery and funding of intermunicipal services,
  2. steward scarce resources efficiently in providing local services, and
  3. ensure municipalities contribute funding to services that benefit their residents.

Municipalities with common boundaries must develop an Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework and a municipality may belong to more than one Framework.  Municipalities without common boundaries may enter into a Framework.  For municipalities that belong to a growth management board, a Framework with other members of the same growth management board is only required for those matters not addressed in the growth plan or the servicing plan.  The Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework must address services related to transportation, water and wastewater, solid waste, emergency services, recreation, and any other relevant services.  There is no direct reference to agricultural lands or their conservation.  The Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework Regulation provides procedural requirements for development of the Frameworks (such as arbitration, dispute resolution and judicial review).

Intermunicipal Planning, Collaboration and Agricultural Lands

These provisions are meant to facilitate and improve intermunicipal planning and cooperation among Alberta’s municipalities.  Development at the fringes of municipalities (often called urban sprawl) has implications for infrastructure, agricultural lands and the long-term sustainability of our communities.  By enhancing, and in many cases, requiring intermunicipal planning and collaboration these issues can be more effectively addressed.

Urban sprawl can impact agricultural lands via outright loss or fragmentation (for more, see Urban, Suburban, Regional and Wet Growth In Alberta report by Alberta Land Institute (ALI Urban Report)).  Fragmentation affects the quantity of farmland, the size and shape of individual plots, the distance between plots owned by the same operation, and the distance between the plots and the residence of the farmers (page 29, ALI Urban Report).  This can lead to a need for more infrastructure (as things are spread further apart) and to increased time and energy for management (aka less efficiency).

Coordinated development at the fringes of adjacent municipalities, via intermunicipal planning and collaboration, can help address issues of agricultural land loss and fragmentation.  Rather than each municipality approving development and infrastructure independently, these decisions can become coordinated leading to more efficiency and less fragmentation of agricultural lands.  Collaborative decisions can be made to address transportation, water and wastewater, solid waste, emergency services, recreation, and other relevant services on a more regional basis.

By enhancing intermunicipal cooperation and requiring some attention toward agricultural lands, these new provisions may prove to be a tool to move from agricultural land conversion to conservation and to stop the loss of Alberta’s agricultural lands.  However, much work remains to be done on the policy and implementation front.

The ELC’s Role in Moving from Conversion to Conservation

With the support of our donors and noted experts in the field, the ELC is currently working on a project exploring the challenges and opportunities for moving from conversion to conservation and stopping the loss of agricultural lands.  This means looking at the existing tools within the Alberta Land Stewardship Act and the new tools within the Municipal Government Act to ensure coordinated, synergistic use of these tools leading to improved energy and food resilience and smart, sustainable urban development.  As well, the ELC will be making efforts and recommendations designed to integrate these tools into regional (intermunicipal) planning processes.  Finally, the ELC will be recommending law and policy reforms directed at the conservation of agricultural lands in Alberta. The ELC’s goal with this project is to achieve clear policy direction at the provincial level which supports the conservation of agricultural land and is guided by environmental principles.

 

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