Albertans are known for their self-reliant, independent attitude and that was clearly on display Feb. 14 as the Warburg Pembina Surface Rights Group held their regular meeting, with guest speaker Drayton-Devon MLA Mark Smith.
Held in Warburg’s Pioneer Agricultural Centre, the meeting gave Smith a chance to talk about a number of surface rights topics, then face a question and answer session.
Smith began his presentation by discussing what rights landowners have under the law, be it provincial or federal law. The MLA quoted some historians who stated the basis for democracy is the right to own land.
“I really believe that,” said Smith. “Democracy is about creating checks and balances… so that no one inside or outside government can abuse that power.”
He stated those in power in a democracy should consider the will of the people and acknowledge that people who own property have a right to say “no” to the government, or an oil company.
Smith said he hears from constituents on a regular basis about land issues. He said a balance is needed between the rights of property owners and the property rights of neighbours. He said the Alberta Bill of Rights discusses property rights, but those rights have limits. The government has the authority to interfere with property rights, usually with tools like zoning bylaws and expropriation.
“Sometimes that’s legitimate,” said Smith. “Sometimes that’s not.”
He said the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms doesn’t mention property rights, and Smith said that’s no accident. When the charter was developed, enshrining property rights may have interfered with what the federal government wanted to do in the future.
However, Smith pointed out it wasn’t just Pierre Trudeau who passed bad property rights bills into law. Previous PC governments in Alberta did the same, and he used Bill 19 as an example. The bill gave cabinet the ability to freeze a person’s land without compensation and this law was linked to making transmission lines easier to develop. Smith said Bill 19 was “a bad bill.”
The MLA said the Wildrose Party has its own policy on property rights: that they should be clearly protected in legislation.
Smith discussed the NDP government’s Farm Act. “I think we’re all familiar with Bill 6, the Farm Act,” said Smith, noting he wanted to discuss it as it pertains to property rights.
The MLA noted farms are businesses, but they are different from any other type of business. “I believe that creates a problem,” said Smith. “(The NDP) were doing something the farmers had not asked for. (The NDP) were using half-truths when explaining it.”
The MLA said the Wildrose opposition tried to amend Bill 6, but the NDP have ignored those attempts. The bill gives the government access to farm records, and as Smith noted most farmers keep their records in their homes. You now have a situation where the NDP government is entering your home to seize records.
Smith stated the NDP government said any problems with Bill 6 could be fixed at the regulatory phase.
Smith pointed out a fact that the NDP government tends to ignore when it comes to certain renewable resources, as compared to say oil and gas. “Let’s understand something first: wind and sun are not Crown assets. Yet.”
He said things like windfarms appear to be agreements between the government and a private company. Smith said he’s concerned that when these renewable energy companies go bankrupt, the question of who’s going to clean up the equipment and other mess left behind on farmers’ land will be unanswered. The Wildrose party also tried to change legislation for this problem, and again those amendments were defeated by the NDP government.
Smith said a problem as simple as aesthetics also has no answer. For example, if the government decides 300 wind turbines are going in beside your farm, what recourse does an Albertan have to stop that?
The brainchild of Wildrose Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier, the Protection of Property Rights Act would reverse certain issues created years ago when the previous PC governments passed Bill 36, which allowed for large planning projects to go ahead against the wishes of the landowners affected, according to Smith.
He said the Wildrose Party feels very strongly that landowners’ access to the courts when it comes to such developments be guaranteed. “That’s a right we think all Albertans should have,” said Smith.
Debate on the proposed law will come up in the next legislative session, beginning the first week of March.
Oil and gas leases
Smith gave a nod to the surface rights group, noting it’s at such meetings he himself learned much about landowner property rights.
The MLA said the recession over the past two years has seen some oil and gas companies struggling financially, or going under.
However, their wells, facilities and equipment in some cases are still sitting on landowners’ property despite the fact the companies in question are no longer paying rent. Smith said there are now over 1,300 orphan wells in Alberta, so it’s affecting many landowners. “It’s going to become a problem,” he said. “It’s going to become an issue.”
Landowners do have some recourse in the Surface Rights Act if the company in question is not in the bankruptcy phase.
In non-bankruptcy situations, the company doesn’t have to do anything unless a landowner complains. After the situation is examined by the regulator and the company doesn’t respond, options are available, including barring the operator from the site.
“This is one of the issues that’s been coming across my plate as your MLA,” said Smith.
Smith said the strange issue of squatter’s rights has reared its head in this region. He said many Albertans, including himself, may not have been familiar with this issue.
He stated he’s had two people approach him for help with this issue. Squatter’s rights, in essence, means someone has something, say a fence or building, encroaching on your property.
Sometimes these issues stem from friendly neighbours who had a verbal agreement years ago with no trouble, but someone sold their land to a jerk and now there’s a problem.
Smith said, in Alberta, if someone squats on vacant property for over 10 years, the squatter becomes owner of the property. “There’s not much (the complainant) can do outside of going to court, and they’ll probably lose,” said Smith.
He added that the Wildrose opposition supports the abolishment of squatter’s rights but the committee overseeing this issue is controlled by the majority of voting members who are NDP, and they’ve shown no interest in getting rid of squatter’s rights.
Question and answer
After Smith’s presentation, he opened the floor to questions. A few pertained to the Water Act, the failings of previous PC governments and the shortcomings of the oil and gas regulator, the AER. But most questions actually centered on recent talk of the merger of the PC and Wildrose parties. Smith noted that topic didn’t involve surface rights so he didn’t have much to say on it.
Surface rights group president Karl Zajes noted to guests that the group has been in existence for decades and holds regular meetings every second Tuesday of the month. Some meetings feature speakers, some don’t but all offer information for landowners who are having issues with oil and gas companies, the government etc.