The Alberta Land Stewardship Act, S.A. 2009, c. A-26.8 (ALSA), was proclaimed in force on October 1, 2009. It is an ambitious piece of legislation that attempts to balance competing economic, environmental, and social demands. It also endeavours to reduce the institutional fragmentation between government departments and the increasing cumulative effects of development on the landscape.

ALSA serves as the legislative framework that supports the Land-use Framework (LUF) released by the Alberta Government in December 2008. The LUF outlines a comprehensive strategy to manage public and private lands and natural resources in Alberta. It recognized the problem with having separate legal and policy regimes regulating resources such as water, air, oil and gas, wildlife, fish and forests; when many activities such as mining, forestry, energy development, agriculture, transportation, recreation and wildlife harvesting share the same land base. The LUF was also the policy blueprint from which ALSA was conceived.

Purpose Of The ALSA

The purpose of ALSA is to:

  1. provide a means by which the Alberta government can give direction and provide leadership in identifying the economic, environmental and social objectives of the province of Alberta;
  2. provide a means to plan for the future, recognizing the need to manage activity to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of current and future generations of Albertan, including Aboriginal peoples; and
  3. create legislation and policy that enable sustainable development by taking account of and responding to the cumulative effect of the activities.

In other words, it is an attempt to create a single land planning process that spans both private and public lands, and to consolidate responsibility for land use planning that has been divided and spread across different government departments, agencies, and regulatory tribunals. It is an attempt to manage and to sustain Alberta’s growing economy, while balancing this with Albertan’s social and environmental goals.

Overview Of ALSA

  1. Regional Plans, Regional Planning Process, and its Administration

ALSA provides for the establishment of regional plans as the primary means for land use planning within integrated planning regions and the means by which regional plans are created, amended and reviewed. Although ALSA does not explicitly mandate planning regions, it is the intention of the Alberta Government to divide the province into seven regions based on the geographic boundaries of Alberta’s seven watersheds as outlined in the LUF. However, ultimately, under ALSA, the Lieutenant Governor in Council has the power to divide Alberta into different planning regions beyond the seven regions that were contemplated in the LUF and to create a regional plan for each region. ALSA also allows for the adoption of sub-regional plans and issue-specific plans under and which become part of a regional plan.

The content of any individual regional plan is flexible. The only mandatory content requirement is that each planning region must describe a vision and state at least one planning objective. It is interesting to note that there is no requirement that the vision or objective needs to promote conservation or environmental protection. This is in contrast with the LUF from which the ALSA is conceived that states regional plans will adopt a cumulative effects approach that address the impacts of existing and new activities on the land.

Further, ALSA lists some of the items that a regional plan may include. These include:

  1. policies designed to achieve or maintain the objectives for the planning region;
  2. thresholds and indicators;
  3. monitoring and assessment criteria;
  4. regulations;
  5. law about what a local government body may enact as a regulatory instrument;
  6. management of the surface or subsurface of land or any natural resource; and
  7. authorization for expropriation including expropriation of mines and minerals.

The items listed above are not mandatory:

Moreover, there is no mechanism in ALSA that gives the public the right to participate in the development of a regional plan or challenge the content of a plan. This seems to be inconsistent with the LUF that states regional plans will “consider the input from First Nations and Metis communities, stakeholders, and the public.”

ALSA creates a Land Use Secretariat, which is headed by the Stewardship Commissioner. The Secretariat is responsible for the initiation and administration of the planning process leading to the regional plans being submitted to the Lieutenant Governor in Council. Both the Secretariat and the Lieutenant Governor in Council can appoint Regional Advisory Councils (RAC) for the planning regions. The Secretariat would then incorporate the RAC into the planning process for the purpose of providing advice to the Lieutenant Governor in Council regarding the proposed plans. The Lieutenant Governor in Council has no obligations to appoint RACs and, even if they are appointed, there is no obligation to follow or even consider the advice they provide. The approval and amendment of regional plans fall within the absolute and unfettered discretion of the Lieutenant Governor in Council.

Once a regional plan has been made, ALSA further provides that every decision-making body affected by the regional plan must review, decide if any changes are required and make necessary changes to its regulatory instrument or implement new initiatives to comply with the regional plan. Following that review a statutory declaration that the decision making body is in compliance with the regional plan must be filed.

  1. Conservation and Stewardship Tools

ALSA creates four new conservation and stewardship policy tools that may be used to protect a landscape, viewscape or other ecological heritage value. These tools can be incorporated into regional plans to help the region meet its objectives. The four tools are:

  1. Conservation Easement

Conservation easements allows private property owners to set aside some of their land for certain defined purposes in section 29. It enables the landowner to grant a qualified organization a conservation easement for any, or all of their land to protect and conserve the ecological integrity of the piece of land. A conservation easement constitutes an interest in land that can be registered at Land Titles.

  1. Conservation Offsets

Conservation offsets are compensatory actions to address biodiversity or natural value loss arising from development on both public and private lands. To counterbalance the effects of an activity has on the lands, the conservation offsets allows for compensation mechanisms which includes restitution for the damage to the environment through replacement, restoration, or compensation.

  1. Transfer Development Credit Schemes:

The transfer of development credits is a tool that allows for economic development on private lands but directs it away from specific landscapes by designating conservation areas and development areas. It also allows conditions to be set out under which stewardship units may be used in the conservation areas.

  1. Conservation Directives:

Conservation directives allows for the express setting aside of specific parcels of land under regional plans to protect, conserve, manage, and enhance environmental, natural scenic, aesthetic or agricultural values. Unlike conservation easements, conservation directives are not interests in land. It is the expropriation through a regional plan, which is allowed under section 9(2)(h) of the ALSA.

CONCLUSION

Both present and future development is likely to be impacted by ALSA. Most of the goals and policies outlined in the LUF have been adopted in some shape or form into ALSA. However, unlike the LUF, ALSA has made some of the requirements optional or discretionary, which can make some regional plans toothless in achieving the intended purpose of this piece of legislation.

Further, the broad grants of discretionary power to the Lieutenant Governor in Council and the little accountability may also limit the effectiveness of the ALSA. The unconstrained power to independently create, amend, and implement the planning regions and regional plans creates a heavy-handed centralized bureaucracy, which is the opposite of what the LUF had intended.

When comparing the LUF to the recently proclaimed ALSA, RACs were intended, under the LUF, to be the main vehicle to ensure local interests and concerns were taken into account during the development of regional plans. However, under the ALSA, the role of the RACs is left wholly to Cabinet’s discretion. Further the role of the RACs are not clearly established and seems to suggest that the government wants to avoid the shared responsibility, collaboration and public and stakeholder participation that has been key elements in the LUF.