BARRHEAD - Woodlands County Goose Lake/Freeman River Peter Kuelken says the municipality will have some big land-use decisions coming up soon, and he wants to know how much input residents wish to have.
That is the question he asked a crowd of about 50 people at a disjointed and, at times, heated March 6 meeting at the Fort Assiniboine Friendship Centre and Museum that ultimately touched on municipal planning, 15-minute cities, provincial regulations, crime, and the influx of several dozen newcomers of the Edmonton-based Oasis group.
"Do you, as a community, want to have a group of people that can sit down and talk about the way you as a community want it to look so we, as councillors, can figure out how we assign commercial (zones) or agricultural and recreation reserves, or where natural resource extraction should be," said Kuelken, suggesting the current system is not working.
(Editor's note: For clarification, it should be noted that although Kuelken is a Woodlands County councillor, the meeting was not endorsed or asked for by council. The headline and the first sentence of the article have been revised since it was originally published to clarify any possible confusion.)
As a member of the municipal planning commission (MPC), he said they often approve a development permit, which can include upwards of 60 conditions that the applicant needs to meet.
"The reason that happens is that we never had a good plan, and the commission or council decides to make an exception," he said.
Kuelken suggested going forward, good planning would be essential because there are "big things coming down the pipe."
"And the provincial government is not going to help because they gave (local governments) the responsibility of (land-use planning), but the community can," he said.
Multiple people in the crowd, the most vocal being former Woodlands County Coun. Dale McQueen, criticized Kuelken, saying the meeting was only advertised using select social media and that the posts did not adequately state its purpose or who organized it.
"It just seems like a rushed, bullsh#t, set-up meeting," he said. "How do you think you got all these people in this room? No one understood the posting. Now we find out you are the one pushing people (to put it on social media sites). Let's cut to the chase. The reason why we are in this room is because of new people coming into the community."
Kuelken replied he asked that someone arrange the meeting on his behalf because, as a councillor, he could not do it himself, adding that what prompted him to ask for the meeting was Clear Rock Aggregates' application for a Class 1 sand and gravel operation in the Pride Valley area roughly 1.2 kilometres from the Athabasca River.
Kuelken voted against the application at the Feb. 1 council meeting, stating he needed more information about the cost to the municipality's surrounding road infrastructure, a traffic impact study and a socioeconomic study completed, especially on dust and noise mitigation.
A person from the audience that did not identify themselves pushed Kuelken to identify the "big items coming up the pipe".
"We could be looking at small nuclear reactors because energy transition is here," Kuelken replied. "We could also be looking at wind and solar farms on private, prime agricultural land. Do we not want to plan where that will happen?"
McQueen replied the tools to protect prime agricultural land were already in the county's land-use bylaw.
Kuelken disagreed, saying although the land is zoned for agricultural use, there are categories of the bylaw that allow for discretionary use.
McQueen changed topics, asking Kuelken why John de Ruiter is in Woodlands County.
de Ruiter is the self-appointed leader of a group known as the College of Integrated Philosophy or the Oasis Group. In February, Edmonton police charged de Ruiter with sexual assault. He is accused of sexually assaulting four female followers between 2017 and 2020 under the guise of spiritual teaching. A provincial court judge later released de Ruiter on strict conditions, including staying away from the complainants and not having any unsupervised contact with women other than his wife, daughter and a housemate.
McQueen and others in the crowd believe there are upwards of 80 followers of the Oasis group in the Fort Assiniboine area.
Kuelken replied that de Ruiter does own land in the county but noted it was irrelevant, reiterating he wanted the meeting to discuss getting public engagement in the municipal planning process.
A gravel truck driver took issue with discussions about limiting trucks to specific haul routes, including potentially prohibiting them from going through the Hamlet of Fort Assiniboine.
"Look at Whitecourt, Westlock and even Blue Ridge, where gravel trucks go through their communities without a complaint," he said. "But when we come through Fort Assiniboine, people are up in arms, saying we might disturb somebody."
Another audience member agreed, noting these communities exist because highways go through them and traffic, including industrial traffic, flows through them.
"There should never be another meeting about gravel trucks coming out of the Fort," he said. "It is the safest, most efficient way to go. It has never been an issue. All these trucks have driven past the school on Main Street for years, and no one has been killed or hurt. Be careful what you wish for. If those hauling companies and grain trucks are no longer there using the highway, then the businesses that depend on that traffic will disappear too."
Kuelken agreed, saying instead of trying to restrict traffic flow, it is better to direct where the community wants certain activities through good planning through the land-use bylaw.
"Places where we designate that certain activities cannot place, by saying no, you can't have a small nuclear reactor in somebody's front yard," he said. "We need to put some teeth into our land-use bylaw to stop someone who bought the property for a specific reason other than agriculture on agricultural land that we may not want there. That is what we have to figure out. When I look at what is happening in southern Alberta (with alternative energy projects on ag land), I am afraid that is where we will go."
Barry Kerton, TownandCountryToday.com