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Moving from Conversion to Conservation: ELC publishes Agricultural Lands Law and Policy in Alberta

By the Environmental Law Centre

Alberta’s agricultural lands support numerous social, economic and environmental benefits. Despite this, we have lost and continue to lose prime agricultural lands via conversion into developed uses.  As well, Alberta’s agricultural lands have become significantly more fragmented around Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, and along the Edmonton-Calgary corridor.

There is a significant amount of law and policy regulating agricultural activities. These include laws and principles relating to land, water, and to agricultural practices and operations, as well as legislation such as the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) and the Municipal Government Act (MGA). There are also a variety of financial tools, including taxation, that impact upon agricultural lands.

Despite this significant body of law, a coherent and comprehensive agricultural lands policy is missing in Alberta. By filling this gap – at both the regional level under ALSA and the municipal level under the MGA – land planning and development could be directed with a clear view toward to avoiding further agricultural land conversion and fragmentation. Provincial policy is needed to set priorities, address conflicts (between agricultural and urban activities, as well as conflicting agricultural activities such as conversion of rangelands to cultivated lands), and set objectives.

In addition to providing direction through policy, there must be support provided with appropriate legislative tools and funding. Some tools are already enabled in legislation – such as the ALSA stewardship tools and intermunicipal planning – however, there is a need for additional regulation to effectively implement and enforce these tools. Furthermore, financial support is needed to fund stewardship programs (for example: conservation easements, payment for ecological goods and services). It may also be appropriate to encourage non-regulatory mechanisms (such as voluntary programs or market-driven incentives) to address the issue of agricultural land conversion and fragmentation.

The Environmental Law Centre is currently working on a project exploring the challenges and opportunities for stopping the loss of Alberta’s agricultural lands. The first of two reports provides:

  • A primer on the laws and policies which apply to Alberta’s agricultural lands from the perspectives of planning, development and conservation; and
  • An effective canvassing of the existing legal tools relevant to conversion and conservation of agricultural lands in Alberta.

Download the first report: Agricultural Lands Law and Policy in Alberta here!

The second report in this project will make recommendations for legal and policy reform. This will require analysis of the application and effectiveness of regulatory and non-regulatory tools currently available in Alberta (including market-based tools, taxation, and zoning). Further, the ELC will look to experiences in other jurisdictions – which may have additional or alternative approaches – that can inform Alberta’s law and policies.

Ultimately, the ELC’s goal with this project is to achieve clear policy direction at the provincial level which supports the conservation of agricultural land and is guided by environmental principles; sustainable agriculture within the framing of sustainable development.

Biodiversity should be on the agenda of local councils

This article was originally published Dec. 3, 2019, in Folio.

By BRENT WITTMEIER

Albertans need to start seeing biodiversity as a local priority, University of Alberta researchers say.

In a new report supported by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, associate professor of law Cameron Jefferies and Erin Sawyer, a research assistant with the Alberta Land Institute, argue that growing global concerns about habitat and biodiversity loss need to filter down to the level where Alberta’s municipalities and citizens can play a pivotal role in making the connections between neighbourhoods, communities and nature.

“We should be thinking about our municipal environments as part of the ecosystem,” said Jefferies, who specializes in environmental law. “Infrastructure isn’t just the built environment, it’s also the tree canopy and the water system.”

Building on the principle that communities feel the effects of biodiversity loss most closely, Jeffries and Sawyer argue that local governments have multiple legal tools and tactics to protect sensitive areas, create adaptation plans and encourage citizens to take up conservation in their backyards. The reasons for doing so, Jefferies added, go beyond the satisfaction of living near nature.

“We get a lot from our environment. We get more than we think,” said Jeffries. “At the end of the day, so much of our food comes from pollination. So much comes from the ecosystems that are buffering our environment for us.”

In 2018, Jefferies was awarded a grant to work with the Alberta Land Institute to write a report looking into the environmental implications of recent changes to the Municipal Government Act. The Government of Alberta modernized its legislation governing municipalities, and among the changes were broader powers and expectations for municipalities to pursue and enhance environmental protection.

Since then, a new government has shifted budget priorities, but Jefferies argues that the biodiversity question must not be lost.

Communities can still use conservation offsets and land trading to focus development where it has the least impact, or to shift to higher density planning to consume less land and concentrate resources. Bylaws could be put in place to protect trees on private properties or to encourage the use of green roofs, steps that can keep wildlife corridors intact.

“If we don’t build resilient communities, we’re going to have more repair costs,” Jefferies said. “There’s consequences to insurance, to taxes. There’s consequences to property loss, to damage.”

A bigger emphasis on biodiversity could enhance quality of life at a local level, Jefferies said. The City of Edmonton, for instance, looks at wildlife corridors when planning transportation projects, recognizing that a poorly planned road or bridge can isolate wildlife populations.

Jefferies hopes the new report can spark conversations, provide ideas for municipalities and inspire regional collaboration. But a bigger goal is for broader public engagement around the need to take biodiversity out of nature documentaries and into local contexts. Jefferies and Sawyer’s team is working on brochures to help Albertans see conservation opportunities in their backyards.

While Jefferies said he is hopeful that municipalities will take initiative and support biodiversity, he also envisions an opposite scenario, in which more is expected from local governments without a corresponding degree of financial or regulatory support. He hopes the new report offers municipalities some options for moving forward.

“Funding is always going to be a difficult issue,” he said. “If you get that new responsibility but you don’t get an associated funding boost, then how do you actually achieve some of those goals?”

 

Evict Radon Update: UCalgary research finds short-term radon test kits are not effective in measuring radon gas exposure

For immediate release: As awareness increases about the health danger of radon gas, more people are making the decision to test their homes for the deadly gas. A University of Calgary-led study finds the only reliable way to measure exposure to radon gas is with a long-term testing kit, which takes readings within the home for 90 or more days.

“Radon gas levels can fluctuate wildly day to day,” says Dr. Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Oncology and member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).  “Short-term tests can give a false sense of alarm, or worse, a false sense of security as they cannot precisely predict long-term exposure.”

Researchers placed two test kits, a short-term (five-day) and long-term (90-day) in the same homes. Tests were conducted during summer and winter months. Findings showed the short-term kits were imprecise up to 99 percent of the time when compared to a long term test.

Radon is a known carcinogen. Health Canada lists radon as the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. The gas is naturally occurring, colourless, and odourless. It can accumulate to unnaturally high and dangerous levels in homes. Health Canada has promoted the use of long-term testing kits for some time.

“Our recommendation was based on research from international authorities including the US and Europe,” says Kelley Bush, manager, radon education and awareness Health Canada. “This research is critical because it provides Canadian data that confirms the value of long term testing.”

Goodarzi has also been working with the Real Estate Council of Alberta (RECA) to educate realtors against using short term radon kits for real estate transactions.

“RECA is appreciative of the assistance provided by Dr. Goodarzi in the development of education enabling real estate professionals to advise buyers and sellers to take radon into consideration during the purchase and sale of a home, in the absence of reliable short-term testing,” says Joseph Fernandez, director of education programs at RECA. “All real estate professionals have completed radon related education and new professionals will be required to complete it before entering the real estate profession.”

The findings also show the Prairies are home to the second highest radon exposed population on Earth. The pan-Canadian scientist and physician led Evict Radon research initiative is now recruiting participation from all Canadians. The research is aimed at gathering as much data as possible to understand and ultimately defeat Canadian’s exposure to radon problem.

“We need to know exactly what factors influence high and low radon in Canadian homes. It’s not just in the Prairies, we know of high concentrations in areas throughout the country,” says Goodarzi. “This is easily one of the most preventable forms of environmentally-caused cancer. We have already learned so much from the work we’ve done in Alberta and Saskatchewan to test for and mitigate radon. We plan to build on that.”

In addition to the data gathered on short-term testing kits, Goodarzi’s team was also able to get a better understanding of how the size, design and age of home are related to radon gas exposure.

Findings are published in Scientific Reports.

This research was supported by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, Alberta Cancer Foundation, Health Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Robson DNA Science Centre Fund at the Charbonneau Cancer Institute.

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, holds the Canada Research Chair for Radiation Exposure disease. Evict Radon represents a confederation of Canadian Scholars with expertise in radon biology, architecture, population health, geology and communications.

Learn more about the Evict Radon campaign, and sign up for research study radon kits at http://www.evictradon.org/.

Find the full media release here.

 

Media Contact

Kelly Johnston
Sr. Communications Specialist
Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary
Kelly.johnston2@ucalgary.ca
403-220-5012

About the University of Calgary

The University of Calgary is a global intellectual hub located in Canada’s most enterprising city. In our spirited, high-quality learning environment, students thrive in programs made rich by research, hands-on experiences and entrepreneurial thinking. Our strategy drives us to be recognized as one of Canada’s top five research universities, engaging the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university’s Gaelic motto, which translates as ‘I will lift up my eyes.’ For more information, visit ucalgary.ca/eyeshigh.

For more information, visit ucalgary.ca. Stay up to date with University of Calgary news headlines on Twitter @UCalgary. For details on faculties and how to reach experts go to our media centre at ucalgary.ca/mediacentre.

About the Cumming School of Medicine

The University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) is driven to create the future of health. We are a proud leader with seven world-class research institutes and 2,900 students, as well as faculty and staff, working to advance education and research in precision medicine and precision public health, improving lives in our community and around the world. Visit cumming.ucalgary.ca and follow us @UCalgaryMed.

A Clean Energy Program is on the Horizon for Albertans. Will it Work?

For Immediate Release, Calgary – A 2018 survey reported that 68 per cent of Albertans believe the provincial economy would benefit by transitioning to lower carbon energy sources. The Property Assessed Clean Energy program (PACE) has worked in several jurisdictions in the U.S. as well as Canada and with newly enacted legislation, Alberta is poised to implement its own PACE program.

PACE can help Albertans by providing financing for clean energy upgrades to their properties. The funding would take the form of a loan repaid through an annual amount added to their property taxes.

The School of Public Policy with author Mukesh Khanal released a report that examines PACE and experiences with similar programs in both the U.S. and Canada. The report also offers a solid framework for creating an Alberta model.

According to Khanal, “Alberta is in an ideal position to develop regulations that address the program’s main issues.

Still at square one with newly enacted legislation, the Alberta government must address such issues as the size of PACE loans, eligibility requirements for property owners, what types of environmental upgrades will be permitted and even the interest rate on loans funding the program.

The mayors of Calgary and Edmonton along with officials of smaller Alberta municipalities have expressed their enthusiasm for a provincial PACE program. However, Alberta will face a number of unique challenges first. The downturn in the provincial economy, combined with the decline in household income, the highest personal debt levels in Canada and the highest unemployment rate in the country, may make Albertans averse to taking on more personal financial obligations. Finding trustworthy contractors, getting estimates and researching the products available for the desired upgrades can also add up to an exhaustive effort that could deter busy homeowners.”

Clarity around the terms of the PACE lien will be a key factor for the program’s success in Alberta, as the lien has proven problematic elsewhere. The lien is supposed to be attached to the property and not the owner, but the U.S. has seen numerous instances in which buyers insisted the PACE lien be paid off before the sale closed or demanded that the seller lower the asking price to account for the loan’s outstanding balance.

The Alberta government will need to find a way forward that combines best practices from other jurisdictions with a regulatory framework that addresses PACE’s shortcomings. The research offered in the report is a starting point from which the Alberta government can fashion a strong and equitable PACE program that would be a model for other jurisdictions.

The paper can be downloaded on from The School of Public Policy’s website.

Media contact:
Morten Paulsen
morten.paulsen2@ucalgary.ca
403.220.2540

U of L Study a First in Looking at the Use of Precision Agriculture in Irrigation Farming in Alberta

Given the importance of irrigation to the southern Alberta economy, two University of Lethbridge economists wanted to know if agricultural producers who irrigate are using precision agriculture technologies.

Drs. Lorraine and Chris Nicol have conducted the first study in Alberta examining the adoption of precision agriculture in irrigation farming. Their survey shows users are reducing farm inputs and seeing positive economic benefits as a result.

Last fall, they conducted a survey of irrigators in the Taber Irrigation District (TID) to find out the extent to which precision agriculture technologies are being adopted, the types of tools being used and the satisfaction with the technologies. They also looked at those who didn’t use precision agriculture technologies and their reasons for not adopting. Twenty-seven percent of irrigators in the TID participated in the survey.

“Based on the data collected, 81 percent of irrigators have adopted some form of precision agriculture, an average of five technologies per irrigator. Overall, those who have adopted are very satisfied with the technologies and almost all plan on using even more technologies in the future” says Lorraine. “Among non-adopters, most said their operations were too small to justify the high investment costs.”

Precision agriculture involves parsing fields into small parcels based on variability, allowing more precise application of irrigation water, fertilizer, chemicals and seed, compared to conventional methods. The study identified 20 technologies including auto-steering equipment, variable rate fertilizer and irrigation application, soil-moisture monitoring, terrain mapping and analysis, unmanned aerial vehicle mapping, satellite imagery and various data management tools, for example.

“Precision agriculture has fundamentally changed the way farming is done and it has the potential to reduce costs and increase profits for farmers. Precision agriculture is also critical for sustainable agriculture. Using less fertilizer and less irrigation water, for example, helps lessen run-off and conserve water so it’s also better for the environment,” says Chris.

The TID, one of 13 irrigation districts in the region, has one of the highest concentrations of specialty crops, including potatoes, sugar beets, canola seed, beans, peas, corn, sunflowers and onions. These inputs are vital to processing industries as well as the confined feedlot industry in the region. The TID consists of 115 to 120 irrigation producers who irrigate more than 80,000 acres. Its irrigation infrastructure also supplies water to several communities and many individuals.

The survey showed under precision agriculture, crop yields have increased an average 20 per cent and yearly crop quality has increased by an average of 16 per cent. Yearly reductions in irrigation water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides have ranged between 14 and 24 per cent.

Non-adopters consist entirely of farms less than 2,000 acres. Those irrigators generally cited the smaller size of their operations, high investment costs and incompatibility of machines as the main reasons for not adopting.

“These results suggest irrigators are embracing precision agriculture and experiencing the benefits,” says Lorraine. “This also has positive implications for economic and community development, as well as environmental stewardship.”

…..

The study found:

  • 81% of irrigators have adopted some form of precision agriculture;
  • yearly crop yields have increased an average 20% and yearly crop quality has increased an average 16%;
  • yearly reductions in irrigation water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides have ranged from 14% to 24%;
  • precision agriculture technologies are being applied largely to specialty crops;
  • for 85% of adopters, precision agriculture has affected their overall farm management approach;
  • 89% of adopters are highly satisfied with the technology;
  •  92% of adopters plan to adopt additional precision agriculture technologies in the future;
  • non-adopters indicate small operations, high investment costs, and incompatibility of machines are the main reasons for their non-adoption of precision agriculture technologies.

 

 

Read the full report here. The study was funded by a grant from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation.

Why Alberta Should Say No to a Land Transfer Tax

For Immediate Release, Calgary – Alberta’s deficit is high and might be growing. There are two solutions to fix that – either cut spending or raise new revenue.  The School of Public Policy has launched the Alberta’s Fiscal Future program to study various options for getting us back on track.

As part of that program, The School is looking at various tax revenue options. One is a tax used by BC and Ontario.  It’s the Land Transfer Tax.  That’s a tax on the sale of property.  That tax is generating a lot of revenue in BC and Ontario.  So, should we consider it in Alberta?

The answer is a definitive “no” according to noted tax expert Prof. Bev Dahlby and his co-author Braeden Larson.

This paper examines previous research on land transfer taxes in Canada, Australia and Europe, and concludes that such a tax would only add more volatility to Alberta’s resource revenue-based economy. A one-per-cent land transfer tax in Alberta would have yielded between $460 million and $500 million for provincial coffers in 2017. However appealing that amount of revenue sounds, the tax benefits do not outweigh the drawbacks. Land transfer values in Alberta can undergo substantial change from one year to the next, making a land transfer tax a highly precarious revenue source. Nor would a land transfer tax benefit Albertans who are in the market for a home. Studies show that such taxes discourage residential real estate transactions. If land transfer taxes are burdensome for homebuyers, they are equally so for sellers who may be compelled to lower their asking prices to make up for the extra costs. This leads to a drop in fair market value of homes with a negative impact on the volume and value of real estate transactions.

According to Dahlby, “While a land transfer tax could potentially raise a significant amount of revenue for the Alberta government it still would be insufficient to cover the province’s current fiscal deficit. The situation would be made worse by a negative spin-off effect for the economy due to the reduction of transactions, and a slippage in tax revenues because of declines in the value and volume of land transfers. This paper estimates those declines to be between five and 15 per cent.”

If tax reform is needed to re-align the revenue/expenditure formula for Alberta, a sales tax is preferable to a land transfer tax.

The paper can be downloaded on from The School of Public Policy’s website.

Media contact:
Morten Paulsen
morten.paulsen2@ucalgary.ca
403.220.2540

University of Calgary researcher launches Evict Radon campaign

Study encourages all Albertans to test homes for cancer-causing radon gas

By Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

Cumming School of Medicine researchers are launching a provincewide campaign to encourage all Albertans to have their homes tested for radon gas, for their own safety and to help map household radon throughout the province. Radon is a known carcinogen. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, radon is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking.

“We are launching the Evict Radon awareness campaign to educate people about the effects of radon gas and encourage as many Albertans as possible to test their homes while also gathering data for medical research,” says Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Oncology and a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute. “We’ve proven radon is prevalent throughout southern Alberta and in Calgary area homes. Now we want to expand our research to include all areas of the province.”

Goodarzi and team tested radon levels in more than 2,300 Calgary and area homes. One in eight homes exceeded Health Canada’s acceptable radon levels. The study was published March 29, 2017, in CMAJ Open.

“Radon is a significant issue in Alberta, and while there is an effective solution, the subject is embedded with scientific technical language.” says Brent Alexander, chair of the Alberta Real Estate Foundation that is providing funding for the campaign. “The Evict Radon awareness campaign will clearly communicate the value of testing for radon and mitigation to all Albertans which will result in healthier homes across our province.”

Goodarzi says now is the best time to test for radon. “The winter months, now to April, are the ideal time to test your home for radon. That’s when we spend more time inside, and due to the cold our homes are sealed up tight – the perfect conditions for radon exposure,” he says.

Learn more about the Evict Radon campaign and sign up for your radon kit at www.evictradon.ca. The radon kits used in the study cost $60.

New U of L study finds water issues a major concern of housing developers in the Calgary region

The final report of a study investigating challenges and solutions in acquiring water for housing development in the Calgary provides some insights into this critical issue.

Principal investigator, Dr. Lorraine Nicol of the University of Lethbridge issued the final report after analysing the findings from interviews with 15 major developers working in Rocky View County, M.D. Foothills and/or Okotoks. Challenges in acquiring water have housing developers in the Calgary region worried about the effects on their industry and real estate, on home buyers and the economy in general.

The study found:

  • 100% of developers interviewed believe there are challenges in acquiring licensed water allocations for housing development in the three municipalities under study;
  • 73% stated acquiring a licensed water allocation is the ‘primary issue’ for developers;
  • 60% of interviewees believe water management in the region is political, to the detriment of the housing industry;
  • another 53% believe the source of the problem also relates to government processes;
  • 87% of developers believe water challenges are having a negative effect on the industry, either now or in the future;
  • two-thirds of developers say the cost of acquiring water licenses increases the price of homes;
  • on average, approximately 200 homes sold yearly in the three municipalities under study comprised the resale of new homes. A 10% decline in houses constructed, by reducing the stock of homes, could translate in a decline of 20 houses hold; a 20% decline in new home construction could translate in a decline of 40 homes sold;

All developers believe a solution lies in working together as a region but there was no clear consensus on what type of regional model will work.

For more information about this study, visit the University of Lethbridge’s website here or Alberta WaterPortal’s Blog here.

Real Estate Council of Alberta Partners with University of Alberta School of Business to Raise the Bar in Commercial Real Estate Education

Calgary, Alberta – Commercial real estate education in Alberta will take an enormous step forward with a new partnership between the Real Estate Council of Alberta (RECA) and the University of Alberta.

RECA and the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta have entered into an agreement that will see the University’s business school develop a completely new Practice of Commercial Real Estate course. RECA will offer the course to individuals entering Alberta’s commercial real estate sector.

“RECA is extremely excited about this new partnership,” says Council Chair, Krista Bolton. “This is the first time RECA has partnered with a university for course development. Commercial practitioners have told us the current commercial real estate education in Alberta doesn’t go far enough; the new commercial course will be a game-changer.”

The Alberta School of Business already offers real estate courses as part of its Bachelor of Commerce and MBA programs. Its experience in these areas makes it the perfect partner to develop RECA’s new leading-edge, university-level commercial real estate course.

Edmonton commercial real estate professional Chad Griffiths, who was Council Chair when RECA and the University of Alberta signed a Memorandum of Agreement, strongly supports the partnership and the new course. “From what I have seen of the planned course content, this truly is going to be the pre-eminent commercial real estate course in Canada.”

The new Practice of Commercial Real Estate course offered by RECA will launch in phases, beginning in Fall 2016. As each phases launches, RECA will incorporate it into the current Practice of Commercial Real Estate course.

The Alberta Real Estate Foundation, a funder and supporter of the Real Estate Program, has provided the Alberta School of Business with a $150,000 grant to partially fund the development of the new course.

To read the Real Estate Council of Alberta’s (RECA) announcement please visit their website here.