Sturgeon County continues push for development of Villeneuve Airport Area

· The Pulse

Sturgeon County Mayor Alanna Hnatiw says she's going to keep pushing for a plan to develop the Villeneuve Airport Area, with or without the support of the regional governance board that voted it down in April.

"We're still going to move forward with reaching out to businesses and talking about the area structure plan in preparation for it to pass," she told Taproot.

The Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board (EMRB), made up of the 13 mayors of municipalities including and surrounding Edmonton, voted down Sturgeon's proposed Area Structure Plan for the area surrounding the Villeneuve Airport (VAA-ASP) at a meeting on April 13. The vote was 6-7, but the noes prevailed because one of them was cast by Edmonton.

The plan aims to draw business activity in tech, aerospace and aviation, defence, and more to about 1,200 hectares of land surrounding the airport. The crux of the disagreement is the definition of the "major employment area" that is attached to the airport in the regional growth plan. Opponents also cited a lack of imminent investment and missing details about infrastructure.

"I really struggled to be able to understand the position of several folks at the table that day," Hnatiw said of the meeting that turned Sturgeon's proposal down. "(The VAA-ASP) was in line with the body of the document of the growth plan, but it wasn't in line with a conceptual map (of major employment areas)."

The growth plan has to be the compass for development in the region, said Mayor Amarjeet Sohi of Edmonton, who found common cause with St. Albert, Fort Saskatchewan, Leduc, Beaumont, and Stony Plain.

"One of the reasons for having a coordinated regional growth plan is to reduce the cost of infrastructure," Sohi told Taproot. "Any new (major employment) area that is added will hopefully be compliant to the principles and values of the growth plan, which is to have an orderly growth, which is to have more coordinated growth, not a one-off type of growth."

Hnatiw told her fellow mayors that Sturgeon County would consider leaving the EMRB as a way to achieve its vision for the Villeneuve Airport Area. Such a move would require the province's permission, but it has a precedent: Wheatland County was released from the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board last year.

"I am always in favour of being at a table and an understanding the perspectives of other folks at the table … (but) the province has to look at whether we are fulfilling the mandate and whether we have the right power in the right place," Hnatiw said in an interview.

A map showing the boundaries of the proposed Area Structure Plan for the Villeneuve Airport Area, which surrounds the Villeneuve Airport and excludes the hamlet of Villeneuve

The proposed Area Structure Plan for the Villeneuve Airport Area surrounds the Villeneuve Airport, which is about nine kilometres northwest of St. Albert. (VAA-ASP)

The April 13 meeting heard options to bring forward motions that could keep the VAA-ASP proposal alive. One would be to expand an upcoming five-year review of the growth plan to include consideration of major employment areas. Another would be to allow the VAA-ASP to come back before the board sooner than the standard one-year period for rejected motions. A third could propose a standalone review of the definition of major employment area in the growth plan.

"I'm happy to hear board members are open to considering a more broad look at that five-year update," said Hnatiw. "Unfortunately, (delaying the VAA-ASP's approval) takes away from our ability to promote the opportunities in that part of the region and start to attract some of the investment dollars that we know are ready to find."

Disputes are to be expected, says EMRB chair

Disagreement is a natural part of regional cooperation, and the regional growth plan helps keep those disagreements grounded in a common vision, said Mayor William Choy of Stony Plain, who chairs the EMRB. After all, he said, the board's raison d'être is to ensure responsible growth for the region.

"We're here as a regional board to make sure that the entire region succeeds. And sometimes with larger boards or larger families, you're OK to disagree with everybody. The thing is, we need to sit down and have those conversations," he told Taproot. "If we don't have that conversation and make those changes to the growth plan, then why do we need a growth plan?"

Hnatiw initially planned to present the VAA-ASP to the regional board back in December 2022. Questions from fellow board members, including ones about its adherence to the growth plan, resulted in its withdrawal from consideration so Hnatiw could invite information-sharing and collaboration. This, she feels, was the time for the conversations Choy had in mind.

"You can't drag people to collaboration, and if they're not willing to actually show up with an open mind and collaborate, then I do feel like we potentially need to protect ourselves," she said when asked about the state of regional cooperation and Sturgeon County's potential departure from the EMRB.

Amending the growth plan and approving the VAA-ASP "shouldn't have been an either-or," she said.

"This is also a lesson for the provincial government to understand that the scope of the mandate and the powers that they've given to these regional governance boards needs to be reconsidered."

Mayors Choy and Sohi don't believe the VAA-ASP's rejection is emblematic of a flaw in regional cooperation at the EMRB. And though Hnatiw stands firm that the proposal's failure to garner enough support is an example of red tape hampering a region-wide opportunity, she admits that cooperation is broadly working well, citing the recent Canadian Hydrogen Convention.

"It's not perfect, but we just had 8,000 people from around the world come to Edmonton for the hydrogen convention," she said. "We are functioning higher than many areas, but we could be better with incremental change, and just a little bit of extra effort, and potentially a little more respect given to the rural members at the table."

The EMRB will next meet about its growth plan on May 12. Archives of past meetings, a list of upcoming ones, and more information are available at the board's resource centre.