What happens to Alberta farms when cities sprawl?

What happens to Alberta farms when cities sprawl?

Any Albertan who drives the Calgary-Edmonton corridor has witnessed firsthand the spectacular unfolding of development around Alberta’s major cities. Calgary and Edmonton are the two fastest growing metropolitan cities in Canada, according to recent 2016 census data1 and there is no sign things are slowing down. In 1961, only 63 per cent of Albertans lived in urban areas. Today over 83 per cent of Alberta is urban. In 1961, rural Albertans made up 37 per cent of the population. Only 16 per cent of Albertans live in rural areas today.

As cities absorb the influx, they may look to expand boundaries into neighbouring municipalities. The only way land can be transferred from one municipality to another is through a legislated process called annexation, set out by the Alberta government. In brief, municipalities take the following steps:

  • Send a notice of intent to the Municipal Government Board (MGB) and affected municipality.
  • Discuss the proposal, consult the public and negotiate in good faith.
  • Send a report to the MGB.

The MGB responds with the following steps:

  • If the annexation is uncontested (i.e. signed consents from landowners), the application is processed.
  • If the annexation is contested, the MGB advertises for objections.
  • If there are objections and mediation fails to produce agreement, the MGB conducts a public hearing.
  • After the hearing, the MGB prepares a recommendation. The Government of Alberta makes the final decision.

Annexation does not change who owns the land—only the municipality to which it belongs. So farmers living in a county annexed by a city will begin to pay taxes to the city. The annexation sets out when the tax rate will change—for example, farms may be taxed at the same rate for 20 years or more unless the land is subdivided or rezoned by the landowner.

The annexing city may provide the same services when it comes to plowing, grading, and weed control. However, bylaws around firearms, off-highway vehicles, and animal control may or may not change depending on negotiated conditions. Certain businesses may be required to obtain licences.

How much agricultural land is lost to urban growth?

Some annexed agricultural land eventually gets rezoned for housing and other development. For example, in annexation negotiations between the City of Edmonton and the County of Leduc, how much farmland to preserve over the next 30 to 50 years is a major topic of discussion. But province-wide statistics are spotty. Up to 1996, the Alberta government tracked the amount of agricultural land converted to other uses. Those reports show a loss of less than 1/10th of one per cent of total agricultural land (net) every five years.3Much of the land converted, however, was highly productive crop land along the Highway 2 corridor.4In response to concerns not enough is being done to stop residential growth, the Alberta government restarted its data collection in 2011.5Preliminary numbers6 covering 2011-2015 are available; however, the first full report providing trend analysis and discussion is forthcoming.7

The good news is some municipalities facing annexation are asking what should be done now to protect prime agricultural land. Farmers feeling the pressure of city development need to be able to keep doing what’s necessary to farm—drive their equipment, spread manure, and feasibly expand their lands at agricultural, not development, prices.8The talk is not just nostalgia about the farm way of life; it’s about whether it’s in Alberta’s interests to preserve its agricultural sector as a food exporter of the future.

First steps are being taken: Leduc County, for example, has written up a new agricultural policy calling for priority farming areas to be protected from fragmenting by industry and residential acreages. The Capital Region Board, which manages growth in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region, put a section on agriculture into its regional growth plan for the first time in 2016. An incredibly important question is starting to be discussed: is agricultural land worth more than a holding zone for development?9And what are the other implications of annexation to the rural economy and organizations such as REAs?

1 Source: 2016 Census of Canada, ABGovernment, Office of Statistics and Information: 2016 census data

2 Source: Statistics Canada, Population, urban and rural, by province and territory (Alberta)

3 Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Land Use

4 Ibid.

5 Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Fragmentation and Conversion of Agricultural Land in Alberta

6 Source: 2015 Land Use, Government of Alberta, Department of Agriculture & Forestry: Preliminary numbers

7 Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Fragmentation and Conversion: Frequently Asked Questions

8 Source: Edmonton Journal, Call to protect Edmonton-area farmland hits Capital Region this spring

9 Source: Spruce Grove Examiner/Stony Plain Reporter, Region needs to act now to preserve valuable farm land, study says

Written for the AFREA by Teneo Consulting © AFREA 2017