South Saskatchewan Regional Plan tests the Land Use Framework

South Saskatchewan Regional Plan tests the Land Use Framework

The Draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (Draft SSRP) is a work in progress that must do more if it is to advance the Alberta Land Use Framework (LUF).

This is the acid test. The South Saskatchewan is the most economically, socially and environmentally diverse region in Alberta.  Overlapping uses and property interests blanket public and private land. The Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) could do much to manage this landscape, but at risk to its own health.

As a political exercise, the Draft SSRP is extraordinary in how it provides supporters of the LUF something to build on while denying detractors of ALSA their evidence of harm. The problem is that the Draft SSRP might not do what the LUF demands.  Exactly what the LUF requires of a regional plan is debatable, but business as usual would definitely be a failure.

  • What the LUF says

The LUF might best be understood as a starting point for growth management.  It recognizes that land is a non-renewable resource that is coming under increasing pressure. Competition for land is causing conflict and cumulative effects.  The LUF states that our “old rules”, made in times of low population,  will no longer work as we experience unprecedented growth.  In response, the LUF proposes specific strategies including:

  • Regional plans to guide all decision makers;
  • Managing cumulative effects on air, land and water;
  • Efficient land use to reduce the human footprint; and,
  • Conservation and stewardship of public and private lands.

The LUF also prioritizes policy gaps in areas of provincial interest.

  • Conflict between subsurface and surface activities.
  • Fragmentation and conversion of agricultural land.
  • Transportation and utilities corridors.
  • Recreational use of public lands.
  • Protecting the diversity of ecological regions.
  • Managing flood risk.

These gaps need not be filled through regional plans, but that  is an option.

The outstanding question is whether regional plans need to set limits, recognize trade-offs or make hard choices.  Or, can we still “do it all and have it all in Alberta” simply by managing it better?

ALSA perpetuates this uncertainty by partially implementing the LUF and leaving the rest to regional plans. Unlike the LUF, which adopts the defined principle of “sustainable development”, ALSA’s  broad purpose is to “plan for the future”.    ALSA provides Cabinet with broad discretion in planning but little accountability for outcomes.  ALSA does not require that regional plans set environmental objectives or pursue conservation and stewardship at all.  ALSA provides new Conservation and Stewardship Tools that could help implement regional plans, but need not be used.  The ALSA tools are a mix of coercive and voluntary measures, either of which could provide financial compensation or incentive. ALSA implies an odd marriage of centralized power with a role for the market in filling orders.

  • What the Draft SSRP proposes

Watch this short video and  coverage of the Draft SSRP release.  It offers insight into the view on the LUF and approaches to public and private land:

  • On the LUF:

The Stewardship Minister announces the ‘have it all and do it all’ view.  The  Draft SSRP affirms existing policy for growth in all major land use industries measured by conventional economic indicators. Tourism development and recreational opportunity creation receive much focus and are receiving major funding outside the LUF.

Conservation and stewardship are included in the Strategic Plan, but the Implementation Plan relies on existing parks and public land legislation, existing municipal powers and existing property law. The Regulatory Details maintain all statutory consents and much administrative discretion.

For cumulative effects management, air and surface water quality frameworks are developed. Biodiversity and land disturbance frameworks are to be added by 2014 and 2017 respectively.

Works in progress include groundwater mapping, water storage, wetland policy, riparian areas, grassland sales and recreation trails. These unfinished pieces may provide the freshest opportunities under the SSRP.

Does this advance the LUF? : At the strategic level, the most finished parts of the Draft SSRP are dominated by affirmations of the status quo.  Regarding implementation, the environmental objectives and indicators are the least concrete and there is expressed reliance on the old rules.  At the regulatory level, the Draft SSRP provides little for decision makers to comply with beyond their existing disparate mandates. Disconcertingly, the biggest gaps remaining under the Land Use Framework and Land Stewardship Act concern Land.

  • On Public Land:

Listen to the ‘parks vs. logging’ debate. This is really a dispute over which of the “old rules” should apply.

In the Green Area, the Draft SSRP would be implemented using existing  parks and public lands legislation. In the White Area, the Draft SSRP relies on neither existing legislation nor ALSA.  It includes no new conservation areas in the eastern grasslands but rather endorses a grasslands offset pilot without the ALSA tools.

Does this advance the LUF?:  The Draft SSRP improves on the unenforceable Eastern Slopes Policy, but it could be much better if ALSA were deployed.  ALSA could:

  • Bind multiple permitting agencies to conservation directives,
  • Address intensity of use rather than simply zoning uses,
  • Require integrated land management,
  • Make place-appropriate industry regulations,
  • Set limits that create market demand for stewardship, or
  • Boost the legitimacy of using a Public Land Use Zone for a ‘conservation area’ in the Castle.
  • On Private Land: 

Read the restrained words of the Wild Rose Member. The Draft SSRP creates no changes to municipal powers or property rights to attack.  The revised allegation is failure to address ‘landowner issues’ or to support ‘local initiatives’.  That alone would raise concern in locales where ALSA is still “Bill 36” four years after coming into force.

  • Issue:  Centralized planning:

The Draft SSRP requires municipalities to “consider” that they are “encouraged” to work together. Concerning the regional impact of urban growth, the Draft SSRP cites the Calgary Regional Partnership as a collaborative approach but it does not create a sub-regional plan.

The Draft SSRP is not the only platform to fill LUF gaps.  Related bills to watch include:

Bill 27:  (Flood Recovery and Reconstruction Act), under which Cabinet may regulate municipal development in flood plains.

Bill 28:  (Modernizing Regional Governance Act) under which Cabinet may require Growth Management Boards of multiple municipalities to prepare Growth Management Plans.

  • Issue:  conservation and stewardship:

The ALSA tools are to be phased after the SSRP comes into force. The Draft SSRP encourages municipalities and landowners to use Transfer of Development Credits and Conservation Easements but provides no guidance on where, why or when.

Does this advance the LUF?:  The prospect for uncoordinated land use decisions suggests that user conflicts will continue.  There is also little incentive to try the ALSA tools.  The SSRP could do more to provide guidance for decision makers and landowners at an intermediate level between coercive zoning and mere encouragement without incentive.  The SSRP needs to show that ALSA can give as well as take.

Official consultations on the Draft SSRP are being held throughout November 2013.  The feedback deadline is January 15, 2014.

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