By Enrique Massot
County News Online
A recent opinion column published in the Calgary Herald Sept. 15 offers a unique insight into the development industry’s lobbying tactics.
The piece, signed by Bruce McAllister as former MLA for Chestermere-Rocky View, argues against the provincial government’s plans to reinstate regional planning in Alberta—making it mandatory in the Calgary area.
McAllister, who omitted to disclose a current paid position in a developers’ lobby group, supported his opinion with several inaccurate statements. He announced that Bill 21 (the Modernized Municipal Government Act) that will update the legislative framework for municipalities would:
- Implement centralized planning reducing municipal autonomy
- Eliminate competition
- Increase the size of government
Claims 1 and 2 are plain wrong.
Let’s consider the first point—centralized planning. There is no such thing in the books. Individual municipalities will continue to do their own planning. Growth management boards, however, will “address land-use planning, servicing of growth, regional service delivery, cost sharing, and dispute resolution.”
That is, there will be a regional plan, and the board should ensure compliance. Regional planning’s most useful feature would be preventing inappropriate, parasitical development—that is, development that takes advantage of the proximity of an urban centre but without paying the equivalent land costs, development levies and urban taxes. That should back residents who have been fighting tooth and nail—more often than not unsuccessfully—against invasive, urban-like development in the countryside.
Secondly, eliminate competition. How? There will always be Calgary for those wanting to live near all the services and amenities of a large urban centre. Smaller cities such as Airdrie or Chestermere, towns such as Cochrane, villages and hamlets all the way to country residential will continue to provide settings to suit all tastes. Minimum urban density requirements are given as averages, leaving room for diversity of housing types.
In his op-ed, McAllister also states that a growth management board would not have allowed Rocky View to approve the CrossIron Mills mall in Balzac citing “the cost of servicing and water availability as reasons.”
“Instead of duplicating costly services, municipalities should work together.” Danielle Larivee, Alberta Municipal Affairs minister
That, indeed, would have spared Rocky View taxpayers from becoming guarantors of a debt that remains nearly $60-million debt after originating in 2005, when Rocky View decided to defy Calgary and build its Made-in-Rocky View water and sewage infrastructure to support the mall. A year earlier, Calgary had proposed Rocky View to provide water and sewer for Balzac at a cost estimated at about $30 million. Rocky View chose to go on its own—and ended up spending way over $100 million for a system that will soon need upgrading—at additional costs.
“Instead of duplicating costly services, municipalities should work together to deliver more effective, efficient services to their communities,” wrote minister of Municipal Affairs Danielle Larivee in a rebuttal published by the Calgary Herald Sept. 17.
What McAllister calls “competition” and “establishing a great revenue source,” was in reality a risky venture in which Rocky View’s taxpayer-backed credit financed water and sewer in the countryside so that a mall could attract Calgary customers while saving on land costs, development fees and business tax. Developers’ levies have so far fell short of paying back the County for its investment as originally planned.
Tangible benefits for Rocky View residents? Increased tax revenue, officials claim. However, Rocky View never published numbers on the additional tax benefit less related planning and development expenses, as well as the cost of additional municipal services.
Thirdly: Increasing the size of government: Growth management boards will be formed by elected officials of the municipalities involved—not by NDP appointees as McAllister suggested. There may be some administrative staff required, but hey—what has been the cost to taxpayers of decisions such as Rocky View’s servicing Balzac, most of which is still paying interest after over 10 years? The County’s rejection of regional planning also means rejection of regional servicing in favour of the use of sewage stand-alone systems that require means such as spraying of nearby fields to get rid of treated effluent.
McAllister cunningly summons ominous Soviet-era terms such as “central planning” in an effort to depict with dark tones the regional planning initiative.
Again, he omits to mention an example of regional planning that is already working next door.
The Capital Region Board has represented 24 municipalities in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region since 2008 on issues of growth, transportation, housing and regional services. A regional sewage system has been servicing 13 municipalities and over 200,000 residents in the Alberta Capital Region since 1985.
Further, regional planning in the Calgary region had been in place for some 40 years before the Klein government dumped it in the mid-1990s, a story well documented in detail by former Calgary Herald reporter David Climenhaga in Death and Life of Regional Planning in the Calgary Area.
Lastly, McAllister could have made readers a favour by disclosing his current job as Executive Director of Rocky View 2020, a developers’ lobby group in Rocky View County.
McAllister is the only visible head of the organization, which presents itself as a “not-for-profit community advisory organization” and was created by Calgary-based developers with large projects in Rocky View County. However, most Calgary Herald readers would not be able to know that Rocky View 2020 and McAllister’s agenda are one and the same.
Developers, of course, hate the prospect of regional boards hampering their ambitious projects, and Rocky View is their battlefield. For the last 15 years, the industry has successfully placed friendly majorities in Council so that rural lands surrounding Calgary became their playground. Hundreds of millions in private profits are at stake. Consequences of easy approvals that include chronic floods, failed subdivisions, planning aberrations are left to the public purse to fix, as in the recent example of Cochrane Lake.
The young Calgary region still has a chance to avoid becoming an endless, sprawling and car-dependent collection of suburban neighbourhoods, a path that has made so many other metropolitan regions victims of their own success. Bringing back meaningful regional planning could preserve one of the region’s most prized assets: its beautiful countryside.