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MD of Willow Creek begins major overhaul of its land development rules

The municipal development plan for the MD of Willow Creek is undergoing discussions that could result in major changes in the rules that guide land development.
Issues under discussion at the regular council meeting Dec. 14 included changing the size limit allowed for a small subdivision cut out of a quarter section, presently five acres without a waiver, to something more flexible.
Options include instead of one size, five acres, adopting a size range from three to 10 acres.
Discussions also included allowing a second small subdivision from a quarter.
Also discussed was whether the municipal district should change its definition of a fragmented parcel.
“This is all subject to public hearings and a very formal process,” MD of Willow Creek chief administrative officer Cynthia Vizzutti said.
Mike Burla, senior planner with the Oldman River Regional Services Commission, said, “The MD of Willow Creek has one of the most restrictive subdivision policies in southern Alberta.”
Burla is a regular planning advisor to the municipal district and several other municipalities in southern Alberta, from his office in Lethbridge.
“You farm the land then when you get older, if you want to stay on the farm, five acres may be all you want to live on,” Burla added “You turn over the rest of the farm or sell it.”
But there have been so many waiver requests to that five-acre minimum, where applicants want more land, not just five acres, that the rules may require a change for changing times, councillors were told.
“A hard and fast number has worked in most of the applications we have seen in the last 10 or 12 years,” Burla said.
Under the MD of Willow Creek’s present policy, once a quarter section is split into 155 acres and five acres as the subdivision cut out, the issue ends there.
Burla said it means if a person with five acres out wants to do something more with their land to increase their income, that is difficult to do under present regulations.
“At one time it was automatic, you had to approve the first parcel out,” said Burla, adding that first parcel out was considered to be a “universal right.”
Burla said the province had at one time set a subdivision size limit of that first parcel out of 10 acres, but responded to concerns about preserving agricultural land. The size limit was then reduced to three acres.
Since that time individual rural municipalities draft policies on their own to deal with first parcels out.
The province was the subdivision authority prior to the 1970s, when a regional planning commission was developed. In 1995 that was changed and rural municipalities were required to draft their own subdivision policies.
“That is why, depending on the municipality, these allowable parcel sizes are all over the place,” Burla said.
“If a guy has his five acres out and then wants to put in a feed mill he has to look at a whole different quarter section to do that. His quarter has effectively been sterilized due to his subdivision.”
One recent subdivision issue that sparked much debate among councillors was an application put in by Jim Beusekom of Market Place Commodities, on his quarter section near Fort Macleod, to have 9.5 acres of it subdivided out for his elevator business.
Beusekom was fine with following the rules but his application sparked much unexpected debate about whether MD of Willow Creek rules, in place as they are now, are fair to people in agriculture.
That case was once again brought up during the meeting by MD of Willow Creek chief administrative officer Cynthia Vizzutti.
The issue of fragmented parcels was also debated.
The MD of Willow Creek has three criteria that must be met to determine if a property is fragmented.
Those include a property divided up by an actively used railway bed with rails, or bisected by the Oldman River or a roadway built to a municipal standard, which would not include little-used and largely unmaintained country roads or trails.
Land features like cliffs are also not included.
But having a fragmented parcel, for example near the Oldman River, does not automatically mean that subdivision applicants can build there.
“A lot of that area along the Oldman River is not developable because it is in a flood plain,” Vizzutti said.
There were also discussions of whether Willow Creek should add a fourth criteria, to add Willow Creek, in addition to the Oldman River, as a bisecting factor in creating fragmented parcels.
Coun. Maryanne Sandberg suggested it might be discriminatory to allow the fragmented parcels bisected by the Oldman River but not on land bisected by Willow Creek.
Coun. Glen Alm said he had concerns with that as Willow Creek meanders so much through the municipal district that it could open the possibility of a hundred homes all along Willow Creek with their own septic and water needs.
Alm also said he had concerns about making changes that would make it possible for industrial lots to pop up all over the municipal district.
“My personal opinion is I would like to see us have commercial and industrial in areas that are already zoned that way, instead of industrial sites spread all over the municipality,” Alm said. “I’d like to see those things concentrated, if at all possible.”
Coun. Neil Wilson agreed with that concern, adding it had recently been discovered that three illegal RV storage lots had been operating in the MD of Foothills.
No firm conclusions were made during the meeting.
By the end of the day’s discussions councillors seemed glad to have a break.
They will take up the discussion again in the new year.
Burla told councillors that trying to rework the municipal district’s subdivision polices was like taking a hospital stress test on a treadmill.
“The overview starts off easy,” Burla said. “Then you deal with legal access and private driveways and Hutterite colonies and country residential and four horses per quarter, and it gets complicated.”
“These regulations weren’t easy to work on 12 years ago and they aren’t going to be any easier now.”