Unleashing the Environmental Power of Municipalities: Recommendations to Strengthen Alberta’s Municipal Government Act - LawNow Magazine

Unleashing the Environmental Power of Municipalities: Recommendations to Strengthen Alberta’s Municipal Government Act

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Municipalities play a key role in the management and protection of Alberta’s environment. This occurs through regulation of private land uses and through local land use planning. Municipalities can also direct local changes that reduce the trajectory of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and create resilient communities that can adapt to the changes caused by climate change.

Other important local low-emission solutions include those focused on transportation (such as redesign of traffic flows and reconfiguring urban development) and the use of green spaces.However, the environmental management and protection role played by municipalities could be enhanced with legislative changes. Changes should be made to clarify municipal purposes and to create a specific bylaw power allowing municipalities to address environmental matters. As well, changes should be made to expand the currently limited range of enforcement tools and revenue powers available to municipalities. Finally, public participation opportunities in municipal decision-making can be improved with legislative changes.

Municipal Government Act Review

In Alberta, the powers and activities of municipalities are governed by the Municipal Government Act (the “MGA”). Over the past couple of years, the Alberta government has been reviewing the MGA (as well as negotiating City Charters with the municipalities of Edmonton and Calgary). Consultations on the MGA commenced in January 2013 (review details can be found on the MGA Review website).

Following the review process, some changes to the MGA were made with the introduction and passage of Bill 20: Municipal Government Amendment Act in March 2015. The most significant of these changes are provisions enabling the creation of City Charters which may modify or make inapplicable specific provisions of the MGA to Charter Cities. As well, a City Charter may enable a Charter City to modify or replace provisions of the MGA via bylaw. In addition, there were minor changes to provisions dealing with assessment of property definitions, general taxation provisions, local improvement taxes, and off-site levies.
Given their authority over local matters such as planning, transportation, and waste management, municipalities can play an essential role in reducing the trajectory of GHG emissions and creating resilient communities that can adapt to the changes caused by climate change.A second amendment bill is expected this spring (see the government’s Next Steps website). The government has indicated that its priorities for the updated MGA are:

  • strengthened provincial-municipal relations;
  • greater regional collaboration;
  • more sustainable and inclusive development;
  • further responsibility for land use and environmental conservation; and
  • increased fairness and consistency for Alberta taxpayers.

Given that the current MGA does little to expressly require or to empower municipalities to manage and protect the local environment, it is encouraging that the government has chosen sustainable and inclusive development and increased municipal responsibility for land use and environmental conservation as two of its priority areas.

Empowering Municipalities for Environmental Management and Protection

The Environmental Law Centre has made several recommendations to strengthen the MGA (see our recommendations here). The goal of our recommendations is to make environmental management and protection key priorities in the activities of municipalities. These recommendations fall into several broad categories:

1. Protection and management of the environment is a valid municipal purpose and, as such, should be expressly recognized in the MGA.

We recommend that the definitions of environment and sustainability be incorporated into the MGA, and that environmental protection and management be expressly included as municipal purposes. It is our view that expressly granting municipalities clear legislative guidance and authority for dealing with environmental matters will enhance the provincial approach to regional land use planning under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (“ALSA”).

2. The MGA should incorporate by-law purposes specific to protection and management of the environment.

We recommend that the bylaw powers granted in the MGA be expanded to include environmental protection (rather than depending on less direct, general welfare provisions). It is the ELC’s view that this will provide clarity and guidance about the municipal role in environmental protection and management.

3. The MGA should expand the enforcement tools available to municipalities for the purposes of environmental protection and management.

It is our view that current enforcement tools available to municipalities are insufficient for achieving environmental protection and management. We recommend improving enforcement by establishing enforcement tools similar to those available in the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and aligning available municipal tools with the ALSA.

4. The MGA should expand the revenue generation options available to municipalities to enable environmental stewardship and, particularly, land conservation.

Insufficient funding impairs the ability of municipalities – both large and small – to fulfill their roles, even where municipal powers are otherwise sufficient. We recommend that the MGA be amended to enable directed revenue for environmental initiatives.

5. The MGA should enhance opportunities for public participation in municipal planning processes.

It is our view that current opportunities for public participation in municipal planning and decision-making are too limited. Early, meaningful engagement of the public in decision-making leads to processes better decisions and, accordingly, we recommend that the MGA be amended to improve public participation opportunities.

Municipalities and Climate Change

It is our view that current enforcement tools available to municipalities are insufficient for achieving environmental protection and management.Given their authority over local matters such as planning, transportation, and waste management, municipalities can play an essential role in reducing the trajectory of GHG emissions and creating resilient communities that can adapt to the changes caused by climate change.

In recognition of this important role, local and regional leaders from around the world gathered during the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) Climate Change meetings in Paris. In the resulting report – Adapt. Curb. Engage. 21 Solutions to Protect our Shared Planet (Sommet des élus locaux pour le climat, 4 Décembre 2015) – numerous local climate change solutions were identified. These solutions can be broadly categorized into the development of resilience strategies and action plans, implementation of local low-emission solutions, and engagement in partnerships to work with the public, other governments, and industry.

In Alberta, the powers and activities of municipalities are governed by the Municipal Government Act (the “MGA”). Certain changes to the MGA would empower municipalities to take greater action on climate change using solutions such as those identified in the COP 21 Municipal Report. For example, implementation of local low-emission solutions focused on buildings could be facilitated by the following changes:

  • The MGA should be amended to allow municipalities to impose minimum energy requirements and minimum renewable energy standards above and beyond those imposed by the building codes adopted in the Safety Codes Act, R.S.A. 2000, S-1. This would enable municipalities to set high standards for buildings within their borders, including retrofitting of existing, inefficient buildings.
  • The MGA should expand the revenue generation options available to municipalities to enable the use of creative financing tools (such as loans repaid through property taxes or utility bills) to encourage adoption of more energy efficient or renewable energy technologies on a residential basis. Currently, municipalities are restricted as to who they can loan money and as to the purposes for which taxes can be levied.

Other important local low-emission solutions include those focused on transportation (such as redesign of traffic flows and reconfiguring urban development) and the use of green spaces. Solutions such as these can be facilitated by expressly incorporating environmental protection and management into the MGA planning provisions and by expressly allowing bylaws for environmental purposes.

Authors:

Brenda Heelan Powell
Brenda Heelan Powell is Staff Counsel at the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton, Alberta.
 


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