After vocalizing its opposition to the parameters of a regional growth plan for months, Foothills County opted to vote against its approval.
The County was one of three rural municipalities that voted in opposition of the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board regional growth plan, servicing plan, and regional evaluation framework on May 21. Foothills was joined by Rocky View County and Wheatland County, but the plan passed with votes from urban members: Calgary, Okotoks, High River, Chestermere, Cochrane, Strathmore and Airdrie.
County council heard a final presentation from consulting firm HDR Calthorpe during its May 19 meeting, and resolved to direct Reeve Suzanne Oel to vote against the CMRB plan at the board's May 21 board meeting.
“This growth plan, the effect on us, rolls out in the form of huge red tape imposed on Foothills County with costly, lengthy processes that must be approved by the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board,” said Oel during the presentation.
She said despite claims the regional growth plan would help preserve land by reducing the level of development permitted in rural areas and condensing it to certain hamlets or approved joint planning areas with other municipalities, County development is not the issue when it comes to land consumption.
While statutory plans such as area structure plans will have to go before the CMRB for approval moving forward, that’s not the process for annexation of land from the rural municipalities into urban centres, she said.
“The biggest use of agricultural land, is the urbans annexing rural land,” said Oel. “With annexation, there’s no measurement of the impact on land, environment and neighbours, and there’s no approval needed from the board to annex.
“It’s about control and holding the rurals as a land bank.”
Foothills County is largely opposed to its loss of autonomy and potential for economic development, which could limit the expansion and diversification of its tax base to offset residential taxes, she said.
Business in the rural areas will be restricted to mainly home-based operations, with the exception of smaller employment areas permitted in hamlets or joint planning areas, she said.
“Employment development in two future joint planning areas, distant future growth areas, called preferred growth areas, must be approved by the board,” said Oel. “Any other commercial and industrial activities on any size of parcel, any scope, are not included in the plan.”
Lead consultant Peter Calthorpe said hamlets are meant to be another place for small-scale businesses to exist. Each rural municipality would be able to create three new hamlets under the regional growth plan.
He said it’s about servicing those businesses.
“It’s logical that businesses don’t just free-flow in the landscape, they actually have to be tied to transportation and infrastructure,” said Calthorpe, adding Foothills County was given authority to plan the location and configuration of the hamlets, making up about 2,000 acres of land.
Oel said being granted permission to plan economic growth on 2,000 of some 914,000 acres of Foothills County land “is a bit dismal,” and the development won’t occur for some time.
“Hamlet growth areas and joint planning area, those are future,” said Oel. “Those are going to take a while to develop, and we’re not ready for those.”
In the meantime, rural municipalities have been given the ability to permit industrial and commercial uses outside of those growth areas if they are deemed regionally-significant – if they are able to provide benefit for the CMRB area.
Foothills director of planning Heather Hemingway said the definition of regionally-significant isn’t clear and could result in rural municipalities pitted against urban centres should they disagree about an approved business.
“It’s definitely a weird grey area, and my expectation is that the other members of the board will start pointing fingers at rural municipalities that are developing businesses outside of preferred growth areas and calling them not regionally-significant,” said Hemingway.
County CAO Ryan Payne said limiting potential development in the County could also mean the rural municipality has less capacity to participate in the shared service agreements that currently exist for things like fire services or recreation.
“The financial capacity of rural municipalities to continue to share those future costs could be anticipated to be greatly reduced given the way this plan has rolled out so far,” said Payne. “I think in the future our urban counterparts should be prepared to see a reduction in our capacity to finance some of the things we’ve been able to share in.”
Calthorpe said he doesn’t believe the rural municipalities are being impacted any more than their urban neighbours.
“I believe this plan makes demands on all jurisdictions, and to say that it’s making more demands on rurals than urbans, I’m not convinced,” said Calthorpe.
While rural regions are restricted to develop within preferred growth areas, urban development is required to include 75 per cent “progressive mixed use formats,” with higher percentages of the mixed-use model in Calgary’s infill and redevelopment plans.
He said those are big targets to hit, and both rural and urban municipalities will be challenged with ambitious goals.
“If there weren’t challenges, if there weren’t aspirations, then some of the earlier comments of why bother doing this is very much the case,” said Calthorpe.
Councillors expressed concern over relationships damaged by the implementation of the regional growth plan.
Coun. Rob Siewert said wedges have been driven between Foothills County and its urban partners like High River, Okotoks and Calgary over the CMRB, which he said was disappointing after years of working together on joint services and planning agreements.
“It is splintered and broken – the relationship is gone between the rurals and urbans,” said Siewert. “We have this plan, but we have no relationship.”
He said it’s not likely the municipalities will be able to work as closely as they have in the past to achieve mutually-beneficial goals.
Coun. Jason Parker said the damage has been done and it will carry into future years, impacting working relationships, likening the situation to being bullied in school.
“We’re being bullied, we’re being forced,” said Parker. “I hope people have fully considered the consequences of where we’re going to be a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, by approving this plan.”
The CMRB growth plan will now be sent to the Province for ministerial approval.