Wheatland County voted not to support the draft of a regional planning document that, if adopted, could shape development across 10 municipalities in the Calgary region into the future.
The Calgary Metropolitan Region Board (CMRB) was established by regulation passed by the NDP-led provincial government in 2017 to promote the long-term sustainability of the region around Calgary. It is composed of 10 member municipalities, including Strathmore and (a portion of) Wheatland County.
A requirement of the CMRB is the creation of a regional planning document to establish overarching planning strategies for the region, relating to such things as land use, infrastructure investment and service delivery.
This document, called the CMRB Growth and Servicing Plan, is due to be submitted to the province by March 1. While a draft growth and servicing plan has been developed by an external consultant, HDR Calthorpe, a planning consulting firm, it has not yet been finalized. As such, the CMRB is requesting an extension of this deadline to June 1, but it has not yet publicly received a response from the province.
HDR Calthorpe has been presenting an overview of the draft CMRB Growth and Servicing Plan to member municipalities. This plan was presented to Strathmore town council during its Feb. 10 committee of the whole meeting and to Wheatland County council during its Feb. 16 regular meeting.
Following the Feb. 16 presentation, Wheatland County Reeve Amber Link raised several questions about the impacts of the proposed CMRB Growth and Servicing Plan on Wheatland County.
An aspect of the draft regional growth plan could affect Wheatland County as it prohibits employment areas from rural areas, outside of hamlets and “joint planning areas” (of which there are three: between Calgary and Chestermere, Calgary and Airdrie, and Okotoks and High River). The plan thus aspires to shut down rural growth and mandate that most of the growth in the Calgary metropolitan region be directed into urban municipalities, said Link.
“This entire plan is built on a basic premise that specific types of development are only appropriate in certain municipalities, and that’s really being delineated by virtue of whether a municipality is considered urban or rural – and that doesn’t capture the reality of Alberta,” said Link. “Our rural neighbours in the CMRB have demonstrated that effective, sustainable and efficient servicing can happen for industrial or commercial developments outside of urban centres.”
With challenges in the oil and gas sector, Wheatland County has seen significant reductions to its linear tax assessment revenue. In response, its council has been looking to attract investment, diversify and maintain the sustainability of the municipality, said Link. But this new restriction could hinder long-term investment attraction. “This growth plan certainly constrains, if not completely sterilizes, our ability to (attract investment).”
The CMRB draft growth and servicing plan honours existing area structure plans (ASP), planning documents for major developments (e.g. residential communities, industrial parks), passed by member municipalities. But if significant amendments to an ASP are required, approval from the CMRB will be required.
Under the CMRB regulation, if a decision is to be made by a vote, it must be supported by at least two thirds of the representatives from member municipalities with at least two thirds of the population in the Calgary metropolitan region. As Calgary accounts for about 90 per cent of the Calgary metropolitan region’s total population, this essentially gives the City of Calgary veto power.
This voting structure of the CMRB, together with the growth plan, will move decisions away from local democratic governments to a model where one municipality exercises authority over all others, said Link. “That voting structure is essentially based on the notion that authority is given due to the population of that certain municipality, and ignores the responsibility we as rural municipalities have for stewarding large masses of land and our local communities.”
This dynamic could affect Wheatland County directly, which has an approved ASP for its West Highway 1 industrial park which currently requires developers to provide self-servicing for wastewater and stormwater. But as the county is considering providing servicing to the area, this would likely constitute a significant change, requiring CMRB approval, and may not be seen as aligned with the new plan.
“I don’t think anybody could have anticipated that our local autonomy would be stripped, and another municipality would be making the decisions on those amendments,” said Link.
Link also questioned whether public engagement for the growth and servicing plan was sufficient.
“The public was only asked to comment on high-level concepts,” she said. “They were never given the opportunity to comment on policy that would give them an understanding of how the plan would impact them.” There was little to no participation by Wheatland County residents, she added.
Later in the meeting, Wheatland County council passed unanimously a multi-part motion to not support the draft regional growth plan, stating it is concerned significant portions of the growth plan have not been submitted as required.
“We just don’t feel that we can in good conscience support the growth plan as it stands with the impacts of the policy that it contains,” said Link. “It is potentially extremely detrimental to economic growth in Alberta.”
The contract between CMRB and HDR Calthorpe stipulates the submission of the regional growth plan, as well as a regional servicing plan and a regional evaluation framework, the motion states. But Wheatland County is “greatly concerned” none of this work has been “satisfactorily completed,” despite the county contributing over $165,000 worth of staff and elected officials’ time over the past 13 months towards the project, it reads.
As a result, county council is requesting an analysis of the time and money spent by all member municipalities as contributions toward the work of the consultant for review and discussion at the next CMRB board meeting. An accounting of all project costs to date and project work submitted should also be provided, according to the motion. The final part of the motion states the CMRB board should review the draft submissions while considering the provincial mandate of red tape reduction and other provincial economic strategies.
An updated growth and servicing plan will be presented to the CMRB during its next meeting, on Feb. 26.
Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times