Sturgeon County wins appeal to develop Villeneuve Airport Area

· The Pulse

The Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board has approved a plan for the development of the area around Villeneuve Airport, reversing an earlier stance that had Sturgeon County questioning whether the regional body was working for its smaller members.

"Anytime we can get an Area Structure Plan through the process of the EMRB, it's a big win," Sturgeon County Mayor Alanna Hnatiw told Taproot. "Especially in the dispute resolution process. So yes, we're very pleased with the outcome."

Hnatiw has been seeking the board's approval of the Villeneuve Airport Area — Area Structure Plan since 2022. In April, seven of the board's 13 member municipalities voted in favour, but Edmonton's opposition defeated the motion due to the way votes are weighted for population. Edmonton, St. Albert, and the other dissenting members opposed Sturgeon's proposal because they didn't think it was in accordance with the Regional Growth Plan, specifically around major employment areas.

"One of the reasons for having a coordinated regional growth plan is to reduce the cost of infrastructure," Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi told Taproot in May. "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."

But the board issued a statement on Sept. 15 indicating the plan's approval based on an appeal made to its Dispute Resolution Committee.

"The Revised REF Application reduces the Area Structure Plan area by approximately 55%," the committee's recommendation reads. "The County is not pursuing the Municipal Development Plan amendment included with the original REF Application. Collectively these changes reflect the County's intent to develop a Local Employment Area in accordance with the Board's growth plan. The Revised REF Application addresses concerns previously identified in relation to infrastructure; the County has confirmed that specific infrastructure improvements will be funded by the County through off-site levies or other local mechanisms."

The EMRB recently turned 15, yet its Dispute Resolution Committee was formed only in 2022. This is the first dispute it has resolved. Of the committee's four members, three are mayors who voted yes on the original plan for Villeneuve: Morinville's Simon Boersma, Strathcona County's Rod Frank, and Spruce Grove's Jeff Acker, a composition that Hnatiw said was coincidental. Edmonton's Coun. Jennifer Rice is the fourth member of the committee.

A screenshot of Sturgeon County Mayor Alanna Hnatiw speaking into a microphone

Sturgeon County Mayor Alanna Hnatiw, seen here in an interview at the Canadian Hydrogen Convention in April, had to make some changes to the Villeneuve Airport Area's Area Structure Plan to get it through the EMRB's dispute resolution process. (Edmonton Global/YouTube)

The biggest concession in the revised plan for the Villeneuve Airport Area is its 55% reduction in size from the original 1,200 hectares. But Hnatiw said the reduction boils down to the removal of land far from ready for development, called future study areas.

"The future study areas, according to the first draft of the Area Structure Plan, would be land that would likely not be considered for development until even beyond the time horizon outlined in the growth plan — which was articulated in the (original) Area Structure Plan," she said.

Hnatiw previously told Taproot that she would pursue development around Villeneuve Airport with or without the board's support, and even threatened to extricate the county from the board altogether.

"We have always been at the table, trying to create policy that works for everybody at the table, and we'll continue to do so," she said when asked if Sturgeon's departure from the EMRB is still an option. "This process, on this particular topic, has been a prime example of where some of the issues are at the EMRB, and where there's still need for improvement and resolution, in my mind."

Sturgeon County maintains that the "land use plan was and is fully consistent with the EMRB's Regional Growth Plan," it said in a statement, and Hnatiw feels those who opposed the development did not understand the proposal.

The Area Structure Plan in its original form aimed to draw business activity in tech, aerospace and aviation, defence, and more to about 1,200 hectares of land surrounding the airport. Sturgeon County maintains this goal despite the shrinkage of the area's footprint.

"The County looks forward to working with landowners and companies to position the area for long-term growth," Hnatiw said in the Sept. 15 release.

Before that happens, Sturgeon County's council will have to pass a second and third reading of the plan. Hnatiw expects both readings to take place at the county's next council meeting.