Property rights | Alta. lawyer the first to field property rights questions
Alberta’s first property rights advocate has been handed a hot potato.
Property rights issues have been simmering since the Alberta provincial election in May and were at a low boil for much of last year.
Concerns over provincial legislation involving land stewardship, electrical lines and carbon capture were the focus of a government task force last year through which many Albertans raised concerns.
The legislation became an election issue and is deemed to have played a role in loss of Progressive Conservative seats, particularly in the south.
It is now Lee Cutforth’s job to handle queries about property rights and provide information and advice to those with concerns.
The Lethbridge lawyer, appointed by the province as a direct result of the task force, set up shop in late December.
Cutforth said the position will have three main functions: providing information, accepting land-use related complaints and filing an annual report to the government that might contain recommendations for change.
“Part of the information is advising people about their rights, what their rights are, the extent of them, what the remedies might be, what compensation they might be entitled to. And help them decide the best mechanism to pursue those remedies,” said Cutforth.
Complaints can be filed and will be reviewed, with a report issued to the landowner and the entity, board or court dealing with the matter. No decision or penalty is assessed in this process, but Cutforth said his office can determine whether there was impropriety in a land use matter, and its report may influence costs that are payable.
With one month under his belt, Cutforth said he has been surprised by the number of municipal law issues that have come forward.
“What we think of as the traditional issues of farmers and agriculture settings and resource questions, that’s going to be there as well, but I think we’re going to see a little more of the municipal issues come in.”
Cutforth comes from a farming family and owns property near Barons, north of Lethbridge.
He has practiced law for 25 years and has experience with surface rights matters and in negotiating rights of way.
He said property rights can be an emotional issue, and he plans to examine their definition.
“There’s a deeper level, almost a philosophical importance of property rights to Alberta society and to a free society,” he said.
Though property rights are not in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “there still may be an argument to make for them as part of the common law. That’s going to be an interesting thing to explore.”
Appointed for a three-year term, Cutforth said he has ceased political activity or affiliation and plans to be non-partisan.
“An important part of the first term here is to establish the credibility of the office. Certainly you don’t want to be beholden to the government in that sense and be seen as a government party lapdog.
“At the same time, you don’t want to allow yourself to be co-opted by other political interests, either. To me, it’s going to be important just to be impartial, speak to all parties and be fair and carry on in a very impartial, unbiased manner.”
The main office is in the Lethbridge provincial building, but a branch will also be opened in Edmonton when a deputy advocate is hired. There are also plans to hire a policy researcher, communications officer and office administrator.