Farmers fight for right to farm

WETASKIWIN, Alta. — A fight has been brewing in a central Alberta county over a new law that farmers say restricts their right to farm.

The county recently adopted an area structure plan that stops new confined feeding operations from establishing on certain sections of land, a change that producers say will harm the next generation’s ability to farm livestock.

“Our children want to farm, but they can’t do it on a bare piece of land they own a mile down the road,” said John Hulsman, spokesperson for the Ponoka Right to Farm Society, following deliberations Feb. 20 in Wetaskiwin provincial court.

“It’s hugely restrictive for the next generation,” he said.

The county enacted the rules to mitigate a potential influx of confined feeding operations, as well as ease potential conflicts between farmers and town residents in the future. It means no new confined feeding operations can be established in certain zones.

However, confined feeding operations currently in the area are allowed to expand and smaller new intensive livestock farms can be established.

During the court debate, Keith Wilson, the lawyer representing the society, said the county’s decision has severe impacts on the properties where restrictions apply.

“This decision is highly consequential,” he told the court. “This is fundamental to carry on their businesses.”

However, much of the debate circled around provincial legislation requirements.

Wilson argued the county’s plan doesn’t meet the standards set out by the province.

He said provincial legislation requires area structure plans to outline the sequencing of proposed development, land-use, population density and the location of transportation routes and utilities.

Ponoka County’s plan doesn’t meet these standards, he argued, saying it should therefore be retracted. This would effectively throw out the confined feeding operation restrictions.

The county stated in the plan that it wasn’t practical for it to meet the requirements in the provincial legislation. Wilson noted other counties similar to Ponoka, like Lacombe, have been able to write plans that meet the provincial requirements.

“The county itself has said effectively that they have not made the area structure plan consistent, and it’s our respective position that this is patently unreasonable,” he said. “If the statute says something is mandatory, I can disregard it? No, I can’t.”

In response, the lawyer representing Ponoka County, Alifeyah Gulamhusein, said the area structure plan does meet the provincial guidelines.

She said it may not be perfect, but it addresses the key elements that are required for planning. She said there is no standard format for creating area structure plans.

“Comparing bylaws across counties can be a dangerous game,” Gulamhusein said. “When you start getting into that game of comparing, you have to be cautious because every municipality in Alberta has the authority to pass an area structure plan that they think meets the requirements.”

Gulamhusein argued the society has previously never particularly addressed concerns about sequenced development, density, utilities and transportation.

Rather, their concerns are about disallowing new confined feeding operations, which, she said, is a policy decision that’s unrelated to those specific requirements in the provincial legislation.

“If the issue really was about failing to comply with the section (of the legislation), we would have seen some submissions about why that is important,” she said.

“Is this a situation where deficiencies, if any, are so flawed that the court needs to interfere with a policy decision about how to manage land uses? We suggest it is not.”

In response, Wilson said the society did raise concerns related to land use, population density and transportation prior to the plan being enacted.

After hearing the arguments, the judge said he would make a decision in writing in the future. He gave no date on when his decision will be posted.

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