“The bill is all about fairness to landowners and is meant to strike that balance alongside orderly project planning for their government.”
Bill 19 – the Land Assembly Project Area Act – kicked up a cacophony of dissent across Alberta in recent weeks. Its alleged failings have been heard at length in town hall meetings and coffee shops across rural Alberta.
To address those concerns, the Alberta government announced it is considering four changes to the bill in an effort to appease rural landowners and the opposition, who say the bill is draconian and heavy-handed. Critics say Bill 19 abrogates the rights of citizens and are calling for more public consultation before the bill is made law.
That doesn’t appear likely, but Alberta Infrastructure Minister Jack Hayden is making himself available as he defends the bill he introduced to the legislature in March.
Bill 19 will enable government to designate land for major infrastructure projects and to regulate future development within an approved project area, with the understanding that the land will ultimately be purchased by the province.
Stuart Elson, Alberta Infrastructure spokesperson, says there are many misconceptions about Bill 19.
“The bill is all about fairness to landowners and is meant to strike that balance alongside orderly project planning for their government,” he says. “The bill doesn’t bestow any land acquisition powers the government doesn’t already have.” The bill will replace old legislation – specifically the Restricted Development Area regulations (under the Government Organization Act).
“The main difference is that negotiations with affected landowners is now mandatory and that has to happen before any land is designated as a project area,” says Elson. “Landowners will have the same protection, there is no loss of legal rights.”
Existing powers adequate?
That’s a key part of the point the Pine Lake Surface Rights Group wants to make when it meets with Minister Hayden, says group spokesperson Don Bester. “We’re going to be requesting that the minister table Bill 19 on the basis that the act is simply not needed,” says Bester. “The Government Organization Act already has existing powers to facilitate public projects. Bill 19 is the inclusion of corporate entities that are not public, that has evolved into an interest that means corporate profit. “
Bester says the word “public” implies the project is a government project but says the bill’s wording allows for the government to appoint a private corporate entity as its agent.
Not so, says Elson – Bill 19 applies solely to government projects. “Industry will not have access to this legislation. All the cards are on the table – they are apprised of where and what type of project is being considered, and its potential impacts.”
The need for such a bill can be illustrated using the examples of the Calgary and Edmonton ring roads, says Elson.
“These types of large-scale projects were years in the making, and involved a lot of land and multiple landowners. We’re trying to make everyone aware well ahead of time of what is being considered so they can make their decisions accordingly.”
Elson says all affected landowners are consulted and if the government decides the project is in the greater public good and moves to approval, then the government starts buying land.
“One of the bill’s amendments is an attempt to clarify that process and will trigger negotiations with the government as soon as the landowner says he wants to sell.” Then, says Elson, landowners can get their own appraisal or have the opportunity to bring in an independent third party such as the Land Compensation Board or the Courts for arbitration if required, and use an appeal process as well.
Bill 19 will not replace existing legislation, as some of its critics have contend, says Elson.
“The majority of land sales are completed through the negotiation process, expropriation is a last resort and if required will proceed according to the Expropriation Act.”
Another amendment to the bill invokes a two-year time limit on the government. Elson agrees there will come a time when the bulldozers are on their way and some “hard decisions will have to be made.” Historically, Elson says, those cases are rare. In the past 35 years under the Restricted Development Area regulations, only one enforcement order was required, he said.
The County of Grande Prairie brought forward a resolution to the spring convention of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties that the province postpone third reading on Bill 19 until more public consultation is received. Reeve Everett McDonald said the county wanted clarification on how the bill will affect landowners and producers in the province. The resolution was defeated, perhaps a sign the tide is turning for the widely criticized bill.