Province may amend controversial land bill

The Alberta government has opened some old wounds among rural landowners with legislation aimed at streamlining the rules for acquiring private land for public projects.

The Alberta government has opened some old wounds among rural landowners with legislation aimed at streamlining the rules for acquiring private land for public projects.

Landowners are accusing the province of twisting the rules to avoid embarrassing legal challenges over land deemed to be required for roads, highways or utility lines.

"This is a huge power grab and we're trying to wake up the public," said Green party Leader Joe Anglin, who has organized grassroots protests over rural land issues in the past.

Anglin will be a guest speaker at a half-dozen public meetings in rural communities across the province over the next few weeks.

"As we show people the facts, they're horrified," he said Tuesday in an interview. "What it does is remove our right to question a project.

"It removes our right to have compensation determined by a board and it removes our right to have our property appraised if we don't think the minister is giving us the proper compensation."

At first, the Alberta government simply dismissed these concerns when they were raised over the past couple of weeks.

But as a groundswell of protest began building in rural Alberta, the government responded Tuesday with some reassuring words and a promise of amendments to Bill 19.

'Fair market value'

"There's a possibility that an amendment might help people with their fears," Infrastructure Minister Jack Hayden told reporters on his way into the legislature.

"It's always been handled in policy that it's fair market value [for land], but I'm certainly open to the suggestion that could be put directly into the legislation if it's causing confusion."

Premier Ed Stelmach told a news conference Tuesday that the government wants to "provide very clear messaging in the bill" to help ease landowners' concerns.

"We're going to bring to the house any kind of changes that will ensure that the principles of fairness, open and transparency are in the legislation," said Stelmach, who offered few specifics.

The Liberals say there's already widespread distrust in rural Alberta after the province's energy regulator hired investigators to spy on landowners during power corridor hearings two years ago.

A former judge's review of this spying scandal led to several people being ousted from the regulator's office in Calgary and a new hearing was ordered.

But the grumbling in rural Alberta has never abated and the opposition parties took turns slamming the legislation during question period Tuesday.

Liberal Hugh MacDonald accused the government of failing to consult with landowners.

'Almost unlimited power'

NDP Leader Brian Mason said Bill 19 would limit the legal options for landowners who want to fight to prevent their property from being expropriated.

"This legislation will take away those rights to access the courts by giving the government almost unlimited power," Mason told the assembly.

"Giving the government the power to control the land of private citizens without due process flies in the face Albertans' traditions and principles."

But Hayden strongly disagreed, saying the new process will be more open and transparent to ensure landowners get fair market value for their land.

"There will be no taking of land that we require for public purposes any differently than we did in the past," said the minister. "There is no change in compensation from what we've done in the past.

"It's same way it's done all over the world."

One of the aims of this legislation is to ensure that landowners who know the government is interested in their property don't build something that would be a hindrance, said Hayden.

"We have to use some common sense here," he said. "A 10-storey apartment building in the middle of a freeway is not an option."