By Cole Parkinson
The Municipal District of Taber is exploring ways of correcting several examples of farming on municipally owned land across the region.
While the problem reaches far beyond any of the councillor’s time on council, they have started discussing how best to go about enforcing their unlawful use of municipal land bylaw.
“I think all of us have been acutely aware of the farming that has been going on into the borrow pits, some right up to the road,” said Coun. Tamara Miyanaga at M.D. council’s policy meeting on June 4.
“I don’t want to see our roads ruined by guys who are taking advantage by farming land that is not theirs.”
The topic had been brought forward to their policy meeting after a few extreme examples have been brought forward by M.D. staff.
In Bylaw 1806, section 3 — Definitions under 3.14 ‘unauthorized use means use of municipal property, through the construction storing, landscaping, erecting, placing or removal of anything on, in, under or over municipal property, without the written approval of the municipality. Examples of unauthorized use include but are not limited to:
a) digging, cutting, excavating or filling;
b) the placement of pipes, ditches, sumps, swales, roads, ponds or ancillary structure;
c) landscaping including the addition and/or removal of vegetation or any use that interferes with vegetation growth;
d) the placement of a driveway, utilities, telecommunication facilities, fence, vehicles of other structures and chattels,
e) the placement of building materials, stockpiles debris, refuse or other chattels,
f) the removal of gravel or soil.’
Enforcement of the bylaw is one of the bigger concerns of council as they have a vast region to cover with limited resources.
“We’re not the only municipality that is dealing with this, I don’t know how they handle it, but you see it everywhere. I don’t know how you implement a no encroachment policy, I don’t know if we can afford to do that because that would mean many more acres that we would have to look after,” said Coun. John Turcato.
Consistency of how they’re enforcing the bylaw is something council wants to make sure is well know to citizens.
“My biggest concern would be the consistency of enforcing what we have in place or changing what we have in place to make it more suitable,” said Coun. Jen Crowson.
Another concern is the scope of how many areas are encroaching and for how long each has been expanding out.
With some farms, the encroaching has happened over generations of time whereas some have just started.
“I don’t think some of this farming is in the last year or couple of years,” added Miyanaga.
Even with the hopes to correct the numerous examples of unlawful use of M.D. land, council knows whichever path they take will not be an instantaneous fix.
Patience and sharing knowledge will be needed to slowly fix the problem.
“It’s not something that can happen overnight. We’re going to have to work with ratepayers and say ‘we have to start moving away from there’,” explained Reeve Brian Brewin. “I’m reluctant to hand out hundreds of enforcement orders. I’d like to sit down with them and discuss their plan. We have a problem here, tell me how it’s going to be addressed.”
One situation shared with council, which was in particular need of attention, showed a borrow pit completely filled in right to the road allowance.
With the ditch filled in, M.D. administration highlighted what will happen to the road in the near future.
“Long-term, this is going to have some serious effects on the road. When you get moisture and crop being grown right up to the road, there is no where for the moisture to bleed off the edge of the road. This road will deteriorate over the next three to five years severely,” said CAO Derrick Krizsan.
Council also understands the circumstances as to why this issue has been happening more and more.
With high prices for land and the need to get the most out of it, council realizes farmers are doing their best to maximize each year but by filling in ditches right to road allowances, it will bring more problems.
“I think a lot of this is happening surely because of land prices. You’ve got $10,000 an acre land and people are trying to get the most out of it as they can. Obviously, we can’t continue to watch them fill in ditches right in either. There needs to be some way of working with our landowners to make sure if they are going to push dirt out, they aren’t filling it in. If they want to side slope it, that’s one thing but to fill it in is another,” said Brewin.
Council had questions about how they would proceed when staff noticed encroachment and the process of correcting it.
“If this was noticed during work that was being undertaken, we would approach the landowner immediately to let them know what they are doing may get themselves into a non-compliance situation. If we found this scope of encroachment where an individual has filled in the entire ditch of a right away, we would bring this to the attention of a local councillor and we would begin making recommendations that we undertake an enforcement order,” said Krizsan. “The enforcement order is delivered, the RCMP have been delivering these in the past, we get them to execute. Then they have a period of time outlined in the enforcement order to comply with the specifications which is to restore the right away to pre-existing condition.”
Krizsan also went over when the work would be done and who would undertake the cost.
“We have been timing them to non-farming season. Obviously, in order to remove that amount of dirt, the best place to put that dirt would be back into the adjoining field,” he explained.“If they don’t undertake the requirements of the enforcement order, the municipality undertakes the work. We can apply it to the taxes of the adjoining parcel but if the land owner wants to do the work, they would pay a contractor.”
The M.D. would then sign off on the finished project as long as it was repaired back to prior condition.
The bylaw was put in place in early 2010 after similar concerns were expressed but with the problem still persisting, M.D. council has several different areas of concern throughout the area.
Over the years, the M.D. has been working through the complaints they have received.
“There are many out there that go undetected, however the ones that we did detect or were reported to us by ratepayers, are ones we tackled,” continued Krizsan.
While they don’t have an official number of farms not under compliance, they know they have tons littered through the M.D. which has council concerned with how they will be able to enforce the bylaw.
“I don’t see any way we can hand out enforcement orders to everyone involved here, it’s impossible. I don’t think it’s feasible or affordable to take back this land. This bylaw, undeveloped roads aren’t even in there. I think this bylaw is lacking in a lot of fine details,” said Turcato.
Other councillors offered similar remarks.
“We will be very busy enforcing them all and then you’ll have ratepayers that are upset that they can’t farm it. Not only that but now there would be a bunch of weeds growing in and they’ll be telling the M.D. to spray. If we go by what the bylaw says right now, we will be very busy,” said Coun. Leavitt Howg via teleconference call.
Brewin suggested to enact a five-year plan to combat the issue as he didn’t see a viable option to get it done within a year though some on council believed five years wouldn’t be efficient.
“I think a five-year plan is too long. Once we start calling some of these items to action, the word would get around and it would get taken care of sooner than later. Maybe not, but that’s my thought,” stated Crowson. “We have a bylaw in place that needs to be followed, whether there is anything prior to 2010, we should still have a goal to bring everything into compliance at some point.”
One point of contention within the bylaw was the lack of any talk of undeveloped roads and unmaintained roads.
“If it’s a road that needs to be repaired, once it’s repaired I understand it. Prior to that, I don’t understand why there is a bylaw that we have to follow at every instance. You’re saying even prior to 2010, so it’s been farmed for two generations or whatever and because this road hasn’t been built since 1940. It’s functioning well, so leave it as it is,” added Turcato.
Council elected to direct administration to bring the bylaw back with amendments to a future meeting.