EDMONTON — Alberta’s new master land-planning bill is expected be introduced in the legislature Tuesday, but one of its staunchest critics has already had a sneak peek and says it looks like a bust.
Keith Wilson says the main concern with the current Land Stewardship Act gives cabinet power to decide how land is used and, if necessary, can “extinguish” all competing licences and orders.
Wilson met one-on-one Monday with Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight, at the minister’s request, and saw that the word “extinguish” is going to be cut from the legislation.
“They’re going to call it ’rescind.’ Instead of extinguishing a water licence or a Crown mineral lease, or an oil and gas lease, they’re just going to rescind it,” said Wilson.
“It’s a softer word, but the legal effect is the same.”
Wilson has been criss-crossing the province, speaking at community halls packed with hundreds of angry landowners, telling them the Alberta Land Stewardship Act and two other companion pieces of legislation are replacing private rights with the arbitrary rule of cabinet fiat.
He noted that the current Land Stewardship Act also forbids aggrieved parties from seeking relief from the courts. He said the revised version allows for some court relief, but says cabinet will have the right to decide which issues can and cannot be challenged legally.
The core problems are not solved, he said, and that will have a ripple effect.
“It creates economic uncertainty. When oil companies spend millions of dollars in signing bonuses on Crown mineral leases, they’re not anticipating those being extinguished or rescinded at the arbitrary will of the cabinet.
“I did get the sense they (the minister and his team) don’t fully understand the consequences of their provisions. The impression the minister left me with is, ’Don’t worry, you can trust us with these powers.”’
Wilson, a lawyer by training, up until recently was also a member of the Wildrose Alliance, an opposition party that has made private property rights a core value and is eating away at Progressive Conservative government support in rural ridings, mainly over the Land Stewardship issue.
Wilson has said he left the Alliance to avoid the impression his criticism is politically motivated.
The three pieces of legislation at the centre of the debate were passed into law well over a year ago, but are still referred to by their working bill-title numbers.
The Land Stewardship Act, or Bill 36, is a master planning document aimed at cutting through a patchwork of local land-use decisions to ensure the best use of Alberta’s land and water.
Bill 19, the Land Assembly Project Area Act, gives cabinet the right to freeze private land and hold onto it while the province decides if it needs the property for a major project — such as a road, a power line or other transport corridor.
Cabinet can order the landowner to remove buildings and animals, and stop any building or land improvements. Those who contravene the order can be fined and even jailed.
The government is also reviewing Bill 19, but Wilson said he wasn’t asked Monday for his opinion.
Bill 50, the Electric Statutes Amendment Act, allows the province to fast-track construction of power lines to feed its energy needs and avoid brownouts or rotating blackouts.
Public hearings had to be held to prove there was a need for the power. But under Bill 50, cabinet can unilaterally order lines to be built if it determines there’s a critical need for them.
There are no plans to change that legislation.
Knight and Premier Ed Stelmach have already said they’re rewriting Bill 36 to clarify for the public they are not out to grab land without due purpose, consultation and compensation.