Ahead of the Heard: Land Related Issues Need Some Real Attention

Columnist Will Verboven says government will have to give up some control

Anyone traveling between Calgary and Edmonton and the surrounding suburbs will notice that farmland in those areas is disappearing at an alarming rate.

That’s nothing new and it’s not about to stop unless some draconian legislation is put into place which, history has shown, can abruptly change the political landscape in Alberta. It was the former PC government that implemented a smorgasbord of land use legislation that eventually led to their electoral and political demise.

Most readers are aware that the vociferous and single-minded position on property rights catapulted the Wildrose party to legitimacy, taking the majority of rural and small-town ridings in southern Alberta.

I expect the United Conservative Party (UCP) political braintrust is acutely aware of that history and, hopefully, will learn from the perils of property rights issues and property owner angst. Just repealing the offending land-use legislation once the UCP is in power and hoping the issue will then go away is a bit simplistic.

The fact is there are very serious ongoing land-related issues that need attention. The way to resolve those issues is not as difficult as it may seem, if one takes a different track from what was done in the past (more next time).

Most folks are in favour of preserving farmland, albeit some of that is lip service, particularly when one has farmland for sale. It’s hard to have it both ways – preservation of farmland but the freedom to sell to anyone for any purpose.

The usual approach is to implement zoning regulations that restrict and control how land can be used in specific areas. That’s been a haphazard approach until the past PC government instigated regional planning schemes for the different watersheds in the province.

Those land use plans came out of the now infamous land use legislation that the UCP plans to repeal, or at least severely curtail once in government. One ponders what will happen to all those various regional watershed plans already in existence.

The present NDP government continued the land planning process in keeping with their ideological preference for more central control and not a lot of sympathy for land owner concerns. I expect this NDP government would prefer to turn most of Alberta outside of the urban centres into one big park – but I digress.

Land use is much more than just urban sprawl and the loss of farmland – it involves immediate issues that affect land owners and leaseholders right now. My point being that if the existing problems can’t be resolved in a timely and agreeable manner there isn’t much point in creating grandiose long-term visions of what to do with land in Alberta. For instance, can we once and for all deal with surface rights issues involving the energy industry?

These issues are now close to 100 years old and continue to create aggravation for land owners. The relationship between the energy and agriculture industries has improved over those years but it’s been a slow and painful process and usually one-sided, considering the power and money that the energy industry has always wielded.

The relationship involves access, rental rate payments, pollutants, and, of course, the elephant in the room – well reclamation. The latter issue, along with that of the non-payment of access rents, increases as small and medium sized energy companies go out of business. There is a government compensation process for loss of rents but it is slow and cumbersome and needs updating. No hope of this government resolving this long-standing issue.

Another huge and worsening issue that affects land owners and lease holders across this province involves orphan wells. It is estimated that there could be over 100,000 abandoned, bankrupt, uneconomic, and orphaned wells out there and that reclamation costs could exceed over $40 billion – that’s staggering but it shows the growing enormity of the problem. There is an existing reclamation fund in place to deal with this matter, but it is hopelessly underfunded and at its present project rate reclaims less than 1,000 wells per year.

Another land issue involves the ongoing grazing lease discussions; there was a point when it looked like an amicable conclusion had been found that satisfied all stakeholders, but alas, it still staggers along.

These concerns are all interconnected and there are some ideas that could move many of them along but it will take a new approach that will require government politicians and the entrenched bureaucracy to give up their penchant for top down control. More next time. willverboven@hotmail.com

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