What is it?
Environmental Reserve is a land designation under the Municipal Government Act (MGA) that authorizes subdivision authorities to use to prevent development on lands that are deemed unsuitable. Land within a proposed subdivision application may be required as Environmental Reserve if it consists of:
a swamp, gully, ravine, coulee or natural drainage course
land that is subject to flooding or is, in the opinion of the subdivision authority, unstable, or
a strip of land, not less than 6 metres in width, abutting the bed and shore of any lake, river, stream or other body of water
The subdivision authority can take an environmental reserve for purposes of preserving natural features, preventing pollution to a water body, ensuring public access to a water body, and preventing development that presents risk of personal injury or property damage. The municipality takes title to the land dedicated as environmental reserve, and is not required to provide compensation to the subdivision applicant. Notably, the MGA requires Environmental Reserve to be left in their natural state, unless the reserve is to be used as a public park.
Note: A similar tool is the Environmental Reserve Easement. In these cases, title remains with the landowner rather than being transferred to the municipality. Environmental Reserve Easements may be designated and registered on title and, similar to an Environmental Reserve, require that the land subject to the easement remain in its natural state. These easements are considered to be an interest in land and are enforceable by the municipality.
How can municipalities use it?
The MGA allows the subdivision authority to take land as environmental reserve, however, the MGA limits the type and amount that can be taken. However, municipalities can effectively use Environmental Reserve to protect (e.g.) environmentally significant areas, if those areas contain the required land characteristics allowed by the MGA.
What are the advantages?
Environmental reserves offer several advantages, including:
Environmental Reserves can both directly and indirectly preserve natural features and open spaces
No compensation to developer required
Scientifically defensible with provincial guidelines (i.e., Stepping Back from the Water)
What should you watch out for?
No tool is a silver bullet. There are issues for municipalities to watch out for with environmental reserves, including:
The MGA restricts the use of land that can be taken as an Environmental Reserve
Environmental Reserves are primarily to guard against land that is unsuitable to development, not necessarily land that is ecologically valuable
Additional setback widths beyond 6 metres (such as to protect wildlife corridors, general open space, or desirable features) can be difficult to achieve in Environmental Reserves, as the municipality would have to demonstrate that the extra setback is necessary to prevent pollution or allow public access
Taking Environmental Reserves can reduce the amount of land available to be taken for Municipal Reserve
Environmental Reserves can only be used after a property owner has applied for subdivision
How can it help maintain natural infrastructure?
Land dedicated as environmental reserve is required to stay in a natural state, or be dedicated as a public park. Although the type and amount of land able to be taken as environmental reserve is limited, it can protect important ecological features from development and create necessary setbacks to reduce impact to water bodies. This helps to ensure a intact, connected natural infrastructure system, maintaining all aspects – assets, functions, and benefits.
Discussion Paper: Environmental Reserve in Alberta – Discussion paper prepared by the Miistakis Institute in 2017 to outline the intent of Environmental Reserve as per the Municipal Government Act (MGA), how it is applied across Alberta, and to provide observations
Strathcona County – Strathcona County’s Municipal Policy Handbook guides the subdivision authority to use appropriate municipal reserve, environmental reserve, and/or environmental reserve easement for proposed subdivisions that involve environmentally sensitive lands. The goal is to incorporate reserve land into the County’s green infrastructure.
AUMA Municipal Planning Hub - The hub has been developed to provide members with a basic understanding of land use planning in Alberta. The material is divided into four main parts: (1) An overview of proposed planning related amendments to the Municipal Government Act (MGA), (2) A discussion of the purposes of planning and a brief overview of the history of planning, (3) A review of legislation, the hierarchy of plans and roles and responsibilities, and (4) Information on planning issues, trends and best practices. This document includes a section on environmental reserves.
Habitat Law in Alberta - The Environmental Law Centre created a four-volume series providing a review of habitat law and policy in Alberta. Volume 1 (The State of Habitat Laws in Alberta) includes a discussion of Municipal Government Act tools available to protect natural infrastructure including Environmental Reserves.
Municipal Powers, Land Use Planning, and the Environment: Understanding the Public’s Role – Municipalities exercise a broad range of powers that have significant direct and indirect impacts on the environment. Alberta’s cities, towns, and rural municipalities are already key players in waste management, water and wastewater treatment, and land use planning and development. Created by the Environmental Law Centre, this paper explores a municipality’s role in the regulation and management of natural areas including wetlands, air and water quality, toxic substances, redevelopment of contaminated lands, water conservation, wildlife, and other aspects of the environment within the municipality. This document includes a section on environmental reserves.
Town of Strathmore: Quality of Life Master Plan – This document is the town of Strathmore, Alberta’s Quality of Life Master Plan, which includes open space planning. The plan encourages preservation of wetlands and natural areas as well as the use of Environmental Reserve.
Did we miss something?
If you know of a resource that should be on this list - or your municipality has a sample or case that should be here, please let us know!