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Calgary man’s star gazing dream becomes bureaucratic nightmare

A Calgary man who purchased 2.5 acres on the apparent recommendation of a real estate agent that the land would be good for recreation, came to the Oct. 19 MD of Willow Creek council meeting seeking a zoning change for his new property, from rural general to rural recreational.
The public hearing did not go quite the way he expected, but the results of the public hearing were as helpful to him as it could be.
The hearing was heard by full council, not as the municipal planning commission, as the issue could have resulted in changes to the land use by-law.
That meant whatever decision councillors made on the issue was final, and not subject to appeal.
The hearing was a careful one. Some public hearings are quick, this one was not, lasting an hour and 45 minutes.
Merak Chan of Calgary plans to use his newly purchased 2.5 acre site for star gazing and wished to share that passion with others.
Chan sought the zoning change, anticipating that promoting astronomy locally could result in up to 50 visitors to his site on good star-gazing nights.
The 2.5 acres, about half of it the site of an old gravel pit, is located at Plan 1175 of SE of 15-15-26 W4, just west of the Twin Valley Reservoir.
The 2.5 acres borders a slough. There are five neighbours within one mile of the site.
The land had been owned by the province. There was a history to this property that Chan wasn’t aware of before the public hearing.
Before Chan bought it Alberta Infrastructure, as the property owner, had contacted the MD of Willow Creek asking if the municipality was interested in buying it.
The MD of Willow Creek said no but the story is more interesting than the M.D. declining.
When superintendent of public works Roy Johnson was told about the offer he questioned why a provincial ministry would offer a old gravel pit for sale before it was reclaimed.
Chief administrative officer Cynthia Vizzutti told councillors, “I can tell you right now a municipality can’t sell an old gravel pit without reclaiming it.”
That made one of the letters read out during the public hearing by development officer Gail Gibeau, from Alberta Environment and Parks, interesting, as it stated clearly the old gravel pit on Chan’s newly purchased property had to be “reclaimed to the standard of the current zoning.”
“Now at the 11th hour Alberta Environment is going to require reclamation on this,” Vizzutti said. “I would suggest there is a bit of a disconnect here between the two provincial departments and the purpose of this property.”
Issues piled up during the hearing.
Gibeau said the zoning change wasn’t needed until Chan’s plans to have camping in tents and trailers and RVs on the site were submitted.
Gibeau read out municipal district concerns, then letters from the province and one concerned land owner.
Gibeau said the municipal district wanted potable water on site if there were up to 50 campers at a time there for star gazing.
The gravel pit workings would also have to be reclaimed, Gibeau said.
Gerald Lyon, who lives on the neighbouring property at SW 14-15-26 W4 said, “I have been familiar with this area since I was a small kid and I’m an old man now.”
Lyon was opposed to Chan’s plans to have camping for up to 50 people at a time on the small site and suggested it was unnecessary to meet the needs of local star gazers.
“The Royal Observatory of Canada meets in Vulcan twice a month and are building a 20-inch telescope open to the public,” said Lyon, adding that telescope should be available late this year.
Lyon said the turnoff into Chan’s property is on a blind hill, is difficult to see and local traffic includes heavy trucks hauling out of two working gravel pits nearby, with another to open soon.
Bill Holmes, an adjacent landowner with the Holmes Cattle Company, said the only access to Chan’s 2.5 acres is from Township 152 and also said the turn off was in a very bad spot, next to a blind hill.
“If it was one structure on that land and they wanted to watch some stars, I don’t have a problem with that,” Holmes said. “It’s the size of the development being planned.”
Holmes had also been offered the property by Alberta Infrastructure. He told Alberta Infrastructure he would bear the expense of reclaiming the gravel pit and put it back into grass. But his offer to buy and what Alberta Infrastructure wanted for the land were too far apart and the province declined.
“I offered but it was quite a bit different from what they wanted,” Holmes said.
Two people at the meeting, Lyon and Vizzutti, had spoken to the same senior female staff member with Alberta Infrastructure, and both were unimpressed.
“She was almost hostile,” said Lyon, and Vizzutti said her experience was similar.
Vizzutti asked Chan directly, “Who indicated to you, sir, that this property was ideal for recreation purposes?”
“The realtor,” Chan said.
Vizzutti said the gravel pit was so old extraction could take place when zoned rural general, impossible today with updated by-laws.
“It was grandfathered,” Vizzutti said. “It sat in limbo all these years, owned by Alberta Infrastructure. There was never any change in the zoning as it was no longer in use.”
Vizzutti then added yet another wrinkle to the whole matter.
“This was Crown land. Crown land is not under our by-laws. The minute Mr. Chan purchased this property it ceased to be Crown land. It is now governed by our by-laws. What is unfortunate is that we have a gravel pit that is unreclaimed purchased by a gentleman from the city who was told by a realtor this was good for recreation.”
Ken Rasmussen said he wasn’t opposed to what was being proposed but wanted to be sure that everyone could work well together.
“I can’t guarantee there won’t be any light illumination during the evenings when we bring our plant in,” said Rasmussen, who is manager of a neighbouring gravel pit that will begin operations soon.
Rasmussen said he would also eventually be working what he called a “significant sand deposit” west of Chan’s property.
When it was Chan’s turn to speak he told councillors since he was a child he loved looking at the stars, something not possible in Calgary as the sky was not dark enough, and when he found out about this land for sale he was immediately interested.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for me to have an observatory.”
Chan said he needed to build a structure on site due to winter weather.
“I think we can all work together to make a beautiful piece of property,” Chan said.
Lyon suggested if the land wasn’t going to be rezoned to rural recreational he would have no problem with Chan building something on the property that would allow him to look at the stars but the land should be reclaimed without disturbing the wetlands.
Oldman River Regional Services Commission planner Mike Burla said there would be fewer problems for Chan if there wasn’t a request to rezone the land to rural recreation.
“If he wanted to sit on top of his garage all night and look at the stars none of us would have a problem,” Burla said. “What’s thrown a monkey wrench in here is this recreational component.”
Coun. Glen Alm said all discussions had to come to full stop as everyone’s hands were tied until the gravel pit was reclaimed to whatever standard Alberta Environment and Parks wanted.
Vizzutti agreed.
Councillors then voted 4-3 to close the public hearing, with councillors Maryanne Sandberg, John Kroetsch and Alm opposed.
The next vote was on the zoning change. The vote was 7-0 to deny the zoning change to rural recreation, which seemed to suit Chan.
Vizzutti said, “Mr. Chan needs to look into what degree of reclamation Alberta Environment requires. That could be inexpensive or it could be arduous.”

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