Land-use planning in Alberta and why farmers should get involved

Shannon Sereda, Government Relations, Policy & Markets, Director | Alberta Grains

The development of land use frameworks (LUFs) in Alberta can be traced back to the early 2000’s when the Government of Alberta recognized the need for a more coordinated and sustainable approach to land use planning. At the time, there was, and continues to be, increasing pressure on the province’s land and resources due to population growth, economic development, and environmental concerns.

A brief history

In 2002, the Alberta government initiated the Land-Use Framework (LUF) process, which aimed to create a comprehensive and integrated approach to land use planning and management. The LUF process involved extensive consultation with stakeholders, indigenous communities and the public to gather input and perspectives on land use issues and priorities. Following the release of the Alberta Land-Use Framework in 2008, the government proceeded to develop regional plans for the different areas of the province. These plans were intended to be developed for seven distinctive regions of Alberta (see map). To date, only two of the regions, the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) and the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP), have successfully completed their regional plans.

The intention of the Land-Use Framework

The Alberta Land-use Framework (LUF) intends to address the complex and interconnected challenges related to land use planning and management, sustainable development, the conservation of natural resources, the protection of ecosystems and to ensure the well-being of communities. Some of the specific problems it aims to solve include:

  • Fragmentation of continuous agricultural land.
  • A more integrated approach to land use planning that considers cumulative effects, not only focused on economy.
  • Environmental degradation and habitat loss.
  • Conflicts between land use, agriculture, energy development, forestry, and recreation.
  • Indigenous and other community members rights and interests and the importance of engagement with all groups when making land planning decisions.
  • Ensure the integrity of irrigation and other infrastructure investments.

The Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) established the legal basis and guidance for the development of regional planning and management under the Land-Use Framework and dictates the province’s guiding principles and goals for land-use planning. ALSA acknowledges the purpose of land planning in maintaining agricultural land to support farming while also preserving the right of property owners to make decisions related to their operations. To this end, in 2011 the Government of Alberta amended ALSA to contain clear language related to the need to respect both property rights and other rights of landowners.

Regional planning and renewable energy

In Alberta, the provincial government defers land use decisions on private land to municipalities through their legislative authority. This is done through the Municipal Government Act (MGA) which directs activities, developments and uses on private land. This authority is enacted under municipal statutory plans and bylaws and is required to follow the LUF regional plans. The MGA provides the basis for the provincial government to supersede any municipal planning that goes against regional plans. The exception to this is renewable energy projects, which are explicitly exempt from the authority of the municipalities under the MGA through section 619(1), which excludes licenses, permits or approval by the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) from the requirement to align decisions with municipal statutory plans.

The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) outlines numerous strategies to support key environmental, economic and social outcomes for the region. Additionally, it addresses the importance of maintaining the agricultural land base by minimizing fractionation and conversation of agricultural lands. The SSRP also seeks to ensure policies are in place to promote new investments in renewable energy, however there is not specific direction provided on how to achieve both outcomes.

Municipalities may express their concerns but have no authority to prohibit any activities as the AUC is the decision maker. As a result, there is no municipal planning or policy which provides direction on land use activities which AUC must consider when making decisions on private land.

Many believe that since municipalities have been given legal authority and responsibility by the province to direct this framework, they should not be exempt from having some oversight related to renewable energy projects. Solar projects particularly are projected to have a fast rate of growth using large areas of prime agricultural land and potentially land with irrigation infrastructure.

Why you should get involved

Farmers as landowners should consider getting involved with the regional planning process. Providing input to land use framework regional plans in Alberta is essential because it ensures that the plans are informed by local perspective, address specific regional needs, enhance legitimacy and identify potential issues and solutions. This would also foster collaboration and partnership among stakeholders and communities.

There are several regional planning processes underway. Alberta Grains will continue to monitor the status of ongoing or upcoming reviews in: Lower Athabasca, South Saskatchewan and North Saskatchewan. Through our Agri-Environmental Partnership of Alberta (AEPA) we are also preparing to respond to ongoing and new planning processes.

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Occurs when once contiguous agricultural areas become divided into separate fragments isolated from each other by non-agricultural land uses. Fragmentation can also occur within a given agricultural parcel of land by access roads, oil and gas or other energy developments and/or linear infrastructure.