County of Stettler drawing hard line to protect Buffalo Lake from encroachment

County of Stettler is cracking down on property owners who are encroaching into setbacks meant to protect Buffalo Lake.

County of Stettler is cracking down on property owners who are encroaching into setbacks meant to protect Buffalo Lake.

One Buffalo View Estates resident recently ran afoul of the county after he cut a path through the woods on a 20-metre strip of protected land to get access to his floating dock on the south side of the lake. The county issued a stop work order after discovering about 30 trees had been removed.

Ordered to replant about 20 native trees, the landowner took his case to the county’s subdivision and development appeal board last month — and lost. The resident was ordered to replant the trees by next June or the county will undertake the work and charge the landowner, up to a maximum cost of $100,000.

The cost of replacing the trees was estimated at $20,000 by the county.

Johan van der Bank, the county’s director of planning and development, said a number of other property owners have also illegally cleared trees out of the environmental reserve. Those sites are being surveyed to determine how many trees were lost and letters will be sent to landowners, likely later this month, informing them the damage must be repaired.

“People just assume what is in front of their property belongs to them, but does not,” he said.

The county began its campaign to clear away encroachments on reserve lands in 2009, when the lakeshore was surveyed to determine where the reserve boundaries lay. Encroachments, such as sheds, boat houses, retaining walls and fire pits were identified and the owners notified. Most people understood what the county was trying to do and were co-operative, said van der Bank. “We had a very good response on that.”

Where residents had mistakenly built substantial structures costing in the thousands, the county has looked for a compromise where suitable.

“We’re looking at giving them the option of doing some boundary adjustments there,” he said.

Enforcing the rules is important because if one group of landowners is allowed to cut their own paths to the lake it will inspire others to follow. Communities around the lake were designed specifically to include designated access points for the public, he said.

Environmental reserves are set aside to protect the lake by providing a buffer between development and fragile ecosystems, which are vulnerable to fertilizer-contaminated runoff and other pollutants.

For the county, there is also a financial risk by allowing illegal structures or paths to pop up in reserve areas. If a mountain biker was to hit a stump on an illegal path, or slam into a fire pit, the county could be held liable, he said.

The County of Stettler isn’t the only municipality wrestling with encroachment issues. Lacombe County undertook its own an inventory on Gull and Sylvan Lakes in 2008. Encroachments were identified and landowners ordered to remove them. Temporary docks were allowed to remain, as well as existing trails and stairs, as long as they met building codes and were approved by the county. A licensing system was set up by the municipality to track those encroachments.

A second inventory was recently completed and turned up a number of new encroachments, prompting the county to issue another round of notifications to those with illegal structures.

— copyright Red Deer Advocate

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