County Plan has room to improve

Enrique Massot
The County News

A plan regulating growth in Rocky View County is on its way to approval, after receiving first reading by council on March 28.

A public hearing on June 25 will give opportunity to residents and stakeholders to provide comments on the plan, after which council may consider approval of the plan. Public input is vital because after listening to all the opinions, individual Councillors may propose amendments to the plan before its final adoption.

The County Plan as presented includes several features that could, if appropriately interpreted by a progressive council, start a new direction in the ways Rocky View grows.

The good news

A statement supporting directing multi-lot residential development to the Towns of Crossfield and Irricana and the Village of Beiseker, as well as directing high density residential development to neighbouring urban municipalities would allow concentrating development where services exist, while allowing rural areas to remain rural.

Direction to assess the use of Transfer of Development Credits as a way to direct development towards appropriate areas while conserving cropland and sharing the economic benefits of development among a larger number of landowners is a step in the right direction.

Much good would come to the County if financial cost and benefit analysis is finally implemented to help evaluate development projects. Caution when using debt financing is a welcome initiative that breaks with past practices.

The not so good news

However, there was a missed opportunity to take into account very clear public input, provided by residents through surveys, workshops and individual comments since the summer of 2012.

“Keep the roads in good shape and give us fire protection,” residents very clearly indicated. Roads and fire were the absolute priorities, ranking 2,931 and 2,345 points respectively in a weighed rank of responses to a survey the County conducted in the summer of 2012.

Far below, at the bottom of a list of 10 priorities, development fetched just 993 points.

What has been the County’s response to this very clear mandate?

Firstly, explicit support for the development of three fully-serviced “hamlets,” with projected populations of 5,000 to 10,000—to be Conrich, Harmony and Langdon.

Besides Langdon, where an urban community already exists, it’s a stretch to pretend that Conrich and Harmony are or will be “hamlets,” designed to house 5,000 to 10,000.

Conrich, for example, is a community that until recently was a quiet country residential area that has become a community in disarray because a CN Railway yard has brought in continuous heavy traffic that uses the rural roads.

On the other hand, the planning reasons for the creation of a “hamlet” to be called West Balzac, on the other hand, are hard to understand because no public outcry for the creation of a fully serviced “regional hamlet” has been heard. The proposed site is a handful of un-subdivided quarter sections missed by recent Airdrie and Calgary annexations, and the only motivated parties may be the corporations owning most of the land and a few individual landowners.

Harmony, on the other hand, is a developer’s plan to turn cropland into housing and commercial development with capacity for 10,000 residents just beside the Springbank Airport, one of the busiest in the country—absolute planning nonsense.

The County Plan draft has not word on how to protect agricultural land, in spite of including seven pages of statements in support of agriculture.

However, agriculture and food was the third priority mentioned in the survey, with a weighed rank of 1,894.

The fourth priority was sewage, storm water and garbage. It is well known the storm water woes made worse through the years by increased development with no big picture solution in Bearspaw and other areas are going to cost several million dollars of taxpayers’ money to fix.

Watershed management, pathways trails and parks, protective services, recreation, culture and community support, all ranked higher than development.

In addition to the summer survey, almost 400 individuals participated in eight workshops, in person and online, conducted in all four quadrants of the County in September-October 2012.

As many as 96 workshop participants supported maintaining the rural nature of the country residential, hamlet and agricultural communities.

“People move to Rocky View because they like our lifestyle, and people who want a more urban lifestyle should move to towns and cities,” wrote one participant.

Another 24 were neutral, while 23 disagreed with the principle.

“Because Rocky View is next to Calgary…the county is going to grow and change whether we want it or not,” wrote another participant. “Rocky View is already quite urban because of hamlets.”

Members of the development industry were allowed to participate at the same level as residents, sometimes without being asked to disclose their activity to other participants.

The results of the 2012 public consultation are in keeping with those obtained in past public input exercises, such as a visioning exercise conducted for the 2007 Growth Management Strategy, and by over 1,000 residents providing input for the Reeve’s Task Force on Growth in 2010.

The County’s response to the public input has also been similar, with an emphasis on large scale development.

The draft County Pan can be seen by logging into rockyview.ca.

The worst news

Plan shortchanges County on soft infrastructure levies

The draft County Plan proposes a policy that gifts developers and deprives Rocky View coffers of money to build soft infrastructure costs of building fire halls, police stations, parks, libraries and recreation facilities.

“Developers are strongly encouraged to build, or contribute to the building of, ‘soft’ infrastructure,” reads section 6.3 of the draft County Plan.

In a sidebar, the draft plan gives a rational for the “encourage” word.

“The Municipal Government Act allows the County to require developers to be responsible for certain infrastructure costs (such as) roads, water, stormwater, and wastewater infrastructure.

“The cost for ‘soft’ infrastructure, such as recreation facilities and fire halls are not the responsibility of the developer under the MGA.”

This statement fails to tell the complete story. Several Alberta municipalities have found a way to bypass the legislative gap, and are recovering the costs of soft infrastructure by including them in development agreements voluntarily signed by developers, and others such as Calgary, by negotiating standard development agreements with industry representatives, the UDI in the city’s case.

As a result, the city was recovering, three years ago, $20,000 per acre from developers

However, Rocky View alleges it cannot implement such levy. During the 2012 workshops, a County planner said Calgary’s levy would be “technically illegal.”

Following that advice, the County set up, in 2006, a voluntary levy agreement set at $800 per residential unit, or $800 per acre of non-residential development.

The levy, as it should have been expected, has raised nominal amounts.

In 2010, consultant Nichols Applied Management prepared an amenity study for Rocky View. It recommended the County to charge $2,700 per residential unit, and $10,000 per non-residential development, to finance recreation facilities, libraries, recreation multi-use facilities, community centres and district parks. The County never followed up on the recommendation.