What About a Municipal “Conservation” Plan ?

Every Alberta municipality with a population over 3500 must adopt a “Municipal Development Plan.” This is the overarching statutory document of a municipality. In other jurisdictions this is called an “Official Community Plan” or a “Comprehensive Plan.” Regardless, the role is the same: they lay out the community’s goals for land use related to things like transportation, housing, business, agriculture, etc.

Despite being strictly a municipal tool, Municipal Development Plans (or MDPs) have a huge impact on land use in general because municipalities have a huge impact on land use. Municipalities are where the rubber hits the road in land use. This is where vague policy directions at all levels of government suddenly turn into roads, schools, stores, hospitals, parks, etc. This is where it becomes real.

Alberta municipalities tend to take the “development” part of an MDP very much to heart, and most visioning and planning centres around different types of development. Even conservation activity tends to be triggered by some aspect of development.

That they should take this approach is not really surprising.

In Alberta, the law (the Municipal Government Act) provides only a short list of “must-do’s” for a Municipal Development Plan or MDP. These include addressing the future of land use in general, future development, coordination with other municipalities, transportation systems, municipal services, and school and municipal reserves. The only conservation-related must-have is policies respecting the protection of agricultural operations.

My suggestion is that maybe we need “Municipal Conservation Plans” that sit side-by-side with Municipal Development Plans.

In the same way MDPs lay out the development priorities for the community, a Municipal Conservation Plan could provide explicit goals, protocols, tools and strategies for conservation in the community. This could be where conservation policies become real. And I mean “conservation” in relatively broad terms: environmental, agricultural, scenic and historic.

It’s not surprising that a ‘conservationist’ like me would suggest this. However, aside from the ambient need for conservation in the province, recent policy changes at the provincial level have perhaps made the idea of a Municipal Conservation Plan more critical.

With regard to land use, we have seen two parallel trends in Alberta, especially over the last five years. The first is a trend to operationalize land use planning in terms of “stewardship.” The lengthy consultation process that surrounded the Land Use Framework – the Land Use Framework – led to the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. We started a discussion about how to reconcile all the competing land uses in Alberta, and settled on an approach based on stewardship.

The second trend has seen the Provincial Government steadily ceding powers to the Municipal Governments. For now, I’ll set aside the very important debate about whether this was ‘downloading’ or ‘empowering’, and simply underscore that it continues to happen. The Alberta Land Stewardship Act, even with its very prescriptive demands on municipalities to align with the upcoming regional plans, sees those municipalities as the primary vehicles for implementation. Further, that Act provides a suite of tools (notably termed “Conservation and Stewardship Tools”) to aid the Plans’ implementation; these tools are aimed heavily at municipalities.

So, municipalities are seeing ever-increasing call for conservation within their land use planning, ever-increasing powers, and an ever-increasing suite of conservation and stewardship tools at their disposal. The question is, can they capably address those stewardship issues, frame the related community goals, and outline the associated tools and strategies within the existing suite of statutory plans? I think this is an unrealistic expectation.

This all begs the question, “What would a Municipal Conservation Plan look like?” I’m not sure, but here are some thoughts … A Municipal Conservation Plan should:
• Be a high-level plan on a par with the current Municipal Development Plan
• Integrate with Municipal Development Plan
• Be outcome based, laying out a series of desired conservation outcomes (e.g., clean water, secure wildlife habitat, viable agricultural land base, intact historic buildings, etc.)
• Articulate goals and strategies for each outcome
• Be proactive, actively identifying conservation needs and appropriate strategies (Municipal Development Plans tend to be reactive in the sense that they provide a framework for municipalities to ‘react’ to the development proposals that come before them)
• Lay out the voluntary, regulatory, market-based, zoning, (etc.) tools that are available and how they would be used within the municipality to support the conservation outcomes
• Relate where needed to the relevant Regional and/or Sub-regional Plan
• Follow the structure of the Alberta Land Stewardship Act and the Regional Plans which promote conservation in terms of environment, agriculture, scenic beauty and historic resources

I’m not ignorant to the fact I am proposing a whole new level of statutory requirement. As statutory documents have the force of law, this is not a modest proposal. However, I feel anything less would become a toothless shelf-art strategy that would have no credibility or likelihood of affecting land use planning in a material way.

I’m also aware this creates a whole new level of administrative requirement. Perhaps – like with other planning undertakings – there should be support and incentives for the development of these plans. Perhaps the plan should be voluntary, but significant grant opportunities made available only to municipalities that create these plans.

There are ways to make even these large undertakings digestible.

Though much would need to be decided, much precedent already exists that – while not the same – can provide huge insights. For example, several Alberta municipalities already have Sustainability Plans. Approaches like the Natural Step are long standing and well established, and can provide abundant background.

In short, I suggest that a “Municipal Conservation Plan”, at the level of a Municipal Development Plan, would promote proactive conservation of valued landscapes, respond to the growing call for conservation of several types, focus municipal efforts regarding conservation, provide a policy framework to attach the existing (and growing) suite of municipal conservation tools, and provide a mechanism to explicitly align municipal conservation activity with the conservation-based outcomes in the regional plans.

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