Control lake projects

The price of autonomous decision making by lakeshore municipalities in Central Alberta may be too high.

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The price of autonomous decision making by lakeshore municipalities in Central Alberta may be too high.

And the defining moment in determining the future standards of lake region planning could be the battle over a proposed 15-lot development on Sylvan Lake.

The Twin Fawn project in the Summer Village of Jarvis Bay is small but it has generated huge opposition, and for good reason.

The project is proposed for the southeast shore of Sylvan Lake, in an environmentally sensitive tract of land. Some fill has reportedly already been trucked into the region, which is sensitive fisheries and waterfowl habitat.

Two years ago, Twin Fawn Holding Ltd. proposed a 19-lot project, which it ultimately revised to 15 lots. At that time, development representative Jim Jardine said the site was targeted because of its location. “You see across the length of the lake and get beautiful sunsets.”

The credo seems to be: if there’s demand for development on picturesque locations, build it.

It would be far better if that demand was tempered by the realization that increased, ill-conceived development will ultimately spoil the picturesque nature of the region. No one wants to visit, let alone live by, a dead lake. Encroach upon a lake too aggressively and you will severely damage it or kill it.

The three major lakes in Central Alberta — Sylvan, Gull and Buffalo — all have or are in the process of developing a management plan and a regional governance model. The intent is for the various municipalities involved — towns, counties and summer villages — to reach common goals on the health of the lakes and to moderate any development proposals.

But it is not a simple matter. No one wants to cede ultimate authority to their part of the lake to another group, particularly one that was not elected. And even though members of Red Deer County council, Lacombe County council and Sylvan Lake council have all voiced concerns, the summer village council will decide on any zoning questions related to the land.

Without a definitive management plan for the lake, signed off by summer village politicians and all other stakeholders, there is no easy way to alter the course of events.

Ultimately, the future of development should rest with the provincial and federal governments. The provincial Water Act states that “before taking on any construction activity in a water body in Alberta, an approval under the province’s Water Act must be obtained.” That may include marshland alongside a lake. But it doesn’t mean, however, that the standards applied will be restrictive enough or protective enough to satisfy lake users.

Interest groups like the Alberta Lake Management Society and the Alberta Water Council are willing to wade into debates about lake development, and have valuable resources at hand. But they carry no ultimate authority.

So must those communities that depend on the lake for their livelihood simply gamble that their neighbours will do the right thing?

The Town of Sylvan Lake draws in excess of 1.6 million visitors a year, and those visitors spend more than $34 million annually in the town. That’s a lot to gamble on.

It would be far better if the province stepped into the mess and declared a lakeshore development moratorium for all of Alberta pending a full review of existing management plans. The goal should be a provincewide water body management standard, complete with zoning and dispute resolution tools.

Autonomy isn’t working. It’s time for a higher authority.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.