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Alberta MLAs hear landowners' concerns on property rights

Standing committee travels to southern Alberta this week to receive feedback on Bill 206 – and air complaints on wind turbines and other utility infrastructure
R.J. Sigurdson 2072
R.J. Sigurdson chairs Alberta's Select Special Committee on Real Property Rights, which has been meeting with landowners across the province this month regarding Bill 206.

A final series of hearings takes place across southern Alberta this week as a 12-member standing committee of the legislature prepares to draft a report on Bill 206, the Property Rights Statues Amendment Act, 2020.

“The committee was struck to address and listen to landowners,” said R.J. Sigurdson, chair of the Select Special Committee on Real Property Rights and United Conservative Party MLA for Highwood. “It’s prudent for the government to be able to take a look and ensure that appropriate methods, standards of approval, are put in place. Once you have that structure it also provides surety both for landowners and investors in the process.”

The committee was struck by the provincial government in March 2021 to investigate ways to strengthen landowner property rights, an initiative that had been part of the UCP election platform in 2019. It has a mandate to received feedback and review the Alberta Bill of Rights; Alberta Land Stewardship Act; Expropriation Act; Land Titles Act; Law of Property Act; Limitations Act; and the Responsible Energy Development Act.

“One of the great parts of this committee is to be able to take a look at the intricate areas … and see whether there are gaps in the system or processes that can cause conflict,” Sigurdson said. “We all know that conflicts usually equals delays, and that never benefits landowners and it doesn’t benefit investors, either.”

Written submissions were received from government ministries and other stakeholders last year. The current hearings will be followed by delivery of the committee’s final report by June 15.

Public engagement sessions were held in Edson and St. Paul at the beginning of April, and this week will see meetings in Medicine Hat, Fort Macleod, Hanna and Eckville.

During a two-hour session in St. Paul on April 1, speakers raised a number of concerns relating specifically to their rights as landowners and their experiences with large-scale industrial development involving their land and that of neighbouring property.

Local landowner Kyle Reszel raised the issue of a wind turbine energy generation project that has been proposed for the Elk Point area. He said the sheer lack of information both from the municipal and provincial level available to the property owners in the area potentially impacted by the project is concerning.

“If they do go ahead with the project, but we refuse to allow a turbine, will they have the rights to go through our land and put power to connect them without us having an opinion on it?” Reszel asked. “Nobody knows where to find the answer … I think this is such a grey area that hasn’t happened here that nobody even has an idea where to start but in the meantime five years has went by and they look like they’re about to start stage 2.”

“You’ve definitely exposed a gap and we will take this information back and start taking a look at this and start asking some questions on why you’ve ended up where you have today. How do we prevent this from happening again?” Sigurdson responded.

County of St. Paul Councillor Dale Hedrick said the municipality was as much in the dark regarding this project as the ratepayers are.

“Everything that I have found that when it comes to the windmills is the farmers don’t really have a say,” Hedrick said, adding the power lies with the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC). “They push them through. It’s like about eight years ago, there was a big power line north of St. Paul … They gave two options to the landowners – it’s either going here or it’s going here … none of the property owners wanted it. When it comes to these windmills, it’s the same thing.”

Hedrick said farmers “need some rights” when it comes to commercial power generation/transmission projects.

“The utilities commission, they trump everything that the farmers say and that’s not right.”

He also expressed concern with reclamation once projects are decommissioned.

“Once these windmills are done, then the landowner is stuck with digging up all this cement,” he said. “There has to be something put in stone, written there about reclamation. I don’t know if these companies have to put money aside for reclamation so they can’t just say ‘Oh we’re broke, sorry there’s nothing we can do,’ and they walk away from it when they’re done with these windmills.”

Farmer Diane Dargis shared her and her husband’s experience and frustration of when transmission lines were pushed through their farmland, describing the process as having “stunk to high heaven.” She said they were completely unaware of the project while it was still under review, until it landed on their doorstep.

“The hearings were a gong show. It was already rubberstamped before we even got in there that it was going to go through . . . basically, it was a done deal even before we went to the hearings.”

Dargis expressed that they were viewed as “only farmers’ and “not knowledgeable” when it came to utilities and what was required.

“We know our land. We know everything about our land. We don’t want power lines in between two perfectly good quarters of land but there was no negotiation. Once they determined that that’s the route … there was nothing we could say about it. I feel that our rights have eroded to nothing at this point.”

County of St. Paul Councillor Kevin Wirsta and Rural Municipalities Association representative for District 5, said there are a number of people in the county with land that has been in their families for 100 plus years.

“The more we learn, the more we can understand, but when you do things behind closed doors and things unfold and happen before you even have a chance to react is unfair to any landowner in this country . . . When one of us speak, you’re only hearing one, but actually you’re hearing 360,000 people because we pretty much all stand behind each other,” Wirsta said of the province’s farmers.

He said increasingly rural property owners are “getting bullied’ and not getting recognition of what they need done in the province. Wirsta also addressed unpaid municipal taxes from the industry in rural Alberta.

“I do believe this year, so far, we are $243 million owed in taxes to Alberta residents in these municipalities. … As we go forward with $150 oil coming in this year, this needs to stop.”

Speaking to the issue of industrial property reclamation, Wirsta observed that “we haven’t learned from our oil reclamation and now we’re starting into our windmills. We are allowing windmills to go across this province and at the same token the AUC is not recognizing the reclamation.”

The committee representatives also heard from a landowner on the issue of adverse possession who described it as an “archaic rule” that needs to be removed from the books.

Sigurdson said the legislation is something many jurisdictions in Canada have ditched.

“It really did open up my eyes, personally, as well as other committee members who can’t believe this is still around in the province of Alberta,” he told Western Investor. “There’s pretty much unanimous support that as a government we should be putting forward legislation to get rid of it.”

Indigenous land claims and treaty rights have alsio figured into the discussions.

Speaking at the meeting in St. Paul, Sheila Redcrow of Saddle Lake observed that it was fitting that the committee was addressing property rights and shared her views on how history has eroded the land rights of Indigenous people.

“Right now, we have virtually nowhere to hunt because we can’t go on the farmers’ land because its private property. You’ve got government selling off all the Crown lands – the provincial ones which were supposed to be ours – so, virtually, our people have nowhere to hunt without getting a huge fine, getting their guns confiscated, getting their vehicles confiscated,” she said.

“We agreed to share the land with the newcomers to the depth of the plough, but that’s not happening either,” she added. “That’s why I came here because really, it’s a big thing that you’re going to do real property rights and, what, we have our little reserve?”

Sigurdson expects to hear more from packed rooms as the committee undertakes its final four public meetings in southern Alberta this week. The committee travels to Medicine Hat and Fort Macleod on April 12, Hanna on April 13 and Eckville on April 14.

“I imagine as we get into southern Alberta, Medicine Hat, I imagine it’s going to be a pretty filled room,” he said.