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Regional planning, an idea whose time has come again, whether some small towns like it or not!

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Nolan Crouse

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

The Town of Redwater has petitioned Alberta's Municipal Affairs Minister to be allowed to quit the Capital Region Board -- a plea that no doubt elicited a powerful ho-hum from most voters in most urban centres in the Edmonton area.

Still, you should read on. This story is more important than it may seem at first blush.

Redwater also tried a more direct approach, putting a motion before the CRB asking to be cut loose -- a request the CRB promptly and prudently rejected, the Gazette, the bi-weekly newspaper in the suburban city of St. Albert, reported Saturday.

Since St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse in his role as the current rotating Chair of the CRB made an impassioned plea for the preservation of body, this did prompt some grumbling from a few of his most persistent critics in the local blogosphere.

Still, whatever you may feel about the mayor, he was right about this one -- the CRB is important, and regional planning can't and won’t work properly unless all the region's municipalities are part of the process, whether they see a short-term benefit from it or not.

Redwater's demand immediately sparked some concern that a number of small towns and rural municipalities in the region will also try to get out of the CRB. This fear is quite justified, it is said here, given the unhappy history of regional planning in Alberta.

The government of Ralph Klein dismantled what was acknowledged to be one of the most visionary and thoughtful systems of regional planning on the planet. This was done allegedly because Klein and some of his senior advisors had concluded it was a needless additional level of bureaucracy. In reality, it was more likely because they were looking to their party's rural base, which may not have been all that different from the people who today have identified themselves as foes of the CRB.

That happened 20 years ago, and I remember predicting at the time it would take about 20 years for the harmful impact of this destructive policy to be felt. In the event, it took less than 15 years for the problems to really become apparent.

Which is why then-premier Ed Stelmach threw up his hands in disgust in late 2007 and legislated a form of regional planning on the Capital Region through the creation of the CRB.

Faced with the requirement to be part of a regional planning system that can look ahead for 35 years and develop visionary regional plans for land development, public transportation, affordable housing, cost sharing and sophisticated regional mapping databases, Redwater Mayor Mel Smith now argues that since "all we want is the ability to control our destiny … we don't need 23 municipalities to tell us how to do that."

One problem with that, of course, is that municipalities acting alone -- even small towns -- can do things that bring serious harm to other neighbouring municipalities. If you don't have a planning forum to deal with that, you're stuck with lawyers and the courts.

Given the opportunity by the Redwater protest, local politicians from other nearby rural municipalities, who at least from a narrow perspective can be said to have benefited from the planning chaos that preceded the imposition of the CRB on the region by Stelmach, soon jumped on the bandwagon.

Sturgeon County Mayor Don Rigney, also no friend of regional planning, told the Gazette he believes the costs of the board exceed its benefits and that, in the words of the Gazette's reporter, "the board would not be a success so long as its members were forced to be in it." His council will consider a motion to try pulling out at its Aug. 27 meeting.

In fact, though, the opposite is probably true. Regional planning can only be a success if members are required to be part of the process. Otherwise, someone will always see a short-term advantage to quitting.

That was the secret to the old system, which worked well. And it's the only way the new system will work.

Allowing municipalities to opt out completely is only democratic in the sense allowing some drivers to opt out of the speed limit and the requirement to stop for red lights is somehow more "democratic." (As things stand, the region's 14 towns and villages can refuse to send representatives to meetings, but their vote will always be recorded as a "yes.")

The effect of the Klein Government's dismantling of regional planning took a while to become clear, but it certainly is demonstrating its malign influence now, not only in expensive inter-municipal squabbles, which enrich lawyers and cost taxpayers, and the unequal distribution of regional resources, but in unimpeded development in places where everyone will suffer as a result.

One good example that springs to mind is the holus-bolus development on flood plains we have seen since the old regional planning system was destroyed by the Klein government. Know it: sooner or later habitations on flood plains are bound to be the venue for expensive disasters!

The blunt fact is, we all need sound regional planning, and urban municipalities like St. Albert probably have the most to gain from it. There's nothing wrong with our municipal politicians defending a process that protects us all.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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