Parkland County Mayor Rod Shaigec says he’ll push to move the boundary inward, at least for specific chunks of still uninterrupted stretches of Class 1 soils such as in Edmonton’s south annexation lands.
Greg Southam Greg Southam / 00088070A
Looks like sprawling Edmonton will finally put on a belt.For the first time, politicians for Edmonton, its bedroom communities and surrounding counties have pitched a formal growth boundary that would set an official limit for one of the most rapidly spreading city regions in the Canadian prairies.Rather than build suburb after suburb, Edmonton and the smaller cities would have to conserve land within the new boundary. They would be forced to build at higher densities and in the vacant lands of the core. In return, the counties would promise not to permit quality agricultural lands in their care to be cut up by industry and country acreages.The payoff for both parties is economic.If done well, the new climate of certainty should stem the tide of farmers currently relocating out of the Edmonton region en mass and attract venture capital. Those are the dollars needed to increase value-added agricultural production in the region — the biofuel, fibres, and food products that could maintain the sector as one of the most important to Edmonton’s future economy.Weighty stuff.But the key questions are whether this new belt will be strong and tight enough.A task force of local mayors and councillors with the 13-member Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board have been working on the challenge for almost a year. In June, they approved, in concept, the first fuzzy line on the map for Edmonton’s agriculture or growth boundary.It largely mirrors the metropolitan growth area the board defined in 2016. Outside the line, it would require counties to make agriculture the highest priority for all lands currently being farmed. Inside the line, agriculture must be supported as long as possible but could eventually be built over.Board staff are working to finalize the precise line between properties by the next task force meeting Aug. 16. The map goes for a first round of public comment this fall.So is it tight? At first glance, no.The proposed boundary wraps generously outside the entire south Edmonton annexation area, Strathcona County’s proposed Bremner development, St. Albert’s proposed expansion north and many other growth areas.It’s 1.3 times the land regional politicians thought they’d need for 25 years of growth when they were still predicting a population of 2.2 million by 2044. And this region has since stopped growing that quickly.It still would permit 435 square kilometres (670 quarter sections) of mostly prime agricultural land to be dug up before anyone hits the barrier. Developers don’t see it changing their plans substantially for decades.But the belt could still get tighter. The next step looks at adding or deleting hotspots. Parkland County Mayor Rod Shaigec, for one, says he’ll push to move the boundary inward, at least for specific chunks of still uninterrupted stretches of Class 1 soils such as in Edmonton’s south annexation lands.There’s an urgency to check sprawl, he argues. Prairie cities were built on the very best farmland. Looking at yield maps and soil qualities, that’s particularly true for Edmonton, and here, the land is also now close to an international airport and major research institutions. It’s a critical resource that can’t be easily replicated in Peace River, for example.But of course, it all means little if the rules are weak. To keep with the belt analogy, if politicians simply loosen it after each big meal, what’s the point?But there’s another benefit to having any line at all. It’s peer pressure, each council seeing its actions as part of a larger picture, a regional quid pro quo.Remember in 2013, when farmers in Edmonton’s northeast Horse Hill area packed council chambers to fight for survival? City council’s first reaction was basically: talk to the region if you want to save farmland.Farmers did. But regional politicians basically laughed them out of the room, says Coun. Michael Walters, who helped organize that fight and now sits on the regional task force.Maybe the biggest win here is that no one is laughing anymore.Edmonton now realizes its $3.7 billion food-processing sector depends on the counties for survival. It needs them to stop subdividing bits of farmland for short-term development needs and give certainly to stop the flight of capital. But it has no moral suasion unless it steps up and treats its own farmland with respect.Does that mean banning the use of any more top-class farmland for low-density housing? It could. How about limiting investment in new areas until large vacant land holdings within Edmonton’s existing borders get filled in?These are the types of questions that should get serious email@example.com/estolteRelated