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Urban sprawl has been encroaching on the foothills around Calgary at an alarming pace and is showing no signs of letting up. This subdivision on the west of Calgary is still expanding and is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2003.Jeff McIntosh for The Globe and Mail

Though some say it's among the most generous legislation of its kind in Canada, a land-use law passed by the Alberta government has drawn the ire of some voters and sparked a political firestorm in the province.

The Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA), for which changes were proposed this week in the face of mounting pressure, is billed as a Canadian first and gives the cabinet power to finalize long-needed regional plans in the province's seven watersheds.

Without such plans, frenzied development will continue with no attention to the cumulative environmental effects. Several legal scholars say it's essential legislation amid the booming oil sands in the north and the overstretched water sources in the populated south. Business leaders and some environmental groups don't share the doomsday interpretation of many individual landowners.

Controversy and confusion, however, have surged surrounding the complex law and the power it affords government.

A clause gives cabinet the power to rescind certain land development rights, presumably to create conservation areas. Owners whose land is swept up in a regional plan can't appeal, but can seek compensation in certain situations.

The lack of legal options has alarmed many, but many say it's not unusual in Canada.

Instead, Albertans are realizing a complex, long-held legal reality: private property in Canada can routinely be commandeered or altered in some way for the public good, with little or no compensation.

"Ultimately, most people don't realize there are … never any legal guarantees of compensation where regulation affects rights and use of property," said University of Alberta law professor Russell Brown.

The issue rose to prominence over the past year or so, but has political undertones. Keith Wilson, a veteran Alberta lawyer, has played host to 24 meetings across rural Alberta warning people of the "unprecedented legal powers" the law creates.

"They're creating a central planning system," Mr. Wilson argues.

But the government rejects the claim and quietly questions the motive of Mr. Wilson, who once sat on a constituency association for the opposition Wildrose Alliance, which has used the law as a wedge issue for rural voters. (Mr. Wilson insists he's careful to remain non-partisan in his legal work.)

"Politics is the art of the half-truth, so they've done a damn good job of using the half-truth," said Ted Morton, a former cabinet minister who first tabled the ALSA.

Many legal scholars don't share Mr. Wilson's broad reading of the law's absolute powers, though acknowledge he could be correct. Instead, they say that though there are some concerns about the law (such as a lack of public consultation), misinformation has tainted public opinion.

"I think it's really even-handed. It certainly does not ignore property rights. If anything ... it's generous," said University of Calgary law professor Arlene Kwasniak. "All in all, I think Alberta really needs this kind of legislation."

Eran Kaplinsky, a University of Alberta law professor, said the ALSA goes further in offering landowners more compensation than Canadian common law (echoing a claim by Mr. Morton). "I don't think there is a very compelling reason to be alarmed by this piece of legislation," he said.

Nevertheless, some Albertans are.

"My father went to war to fight for these rights," proclaims Colleen Boddez, 52, who became a vocal opponent of the law and two similar ones when power lines were almost placed near her family's Edmonton-area acreage.

This week's changes "clarified" much of the law, which is "probably one of the most important things we're going to do in Alberta in this decade," Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight said.

While thousands of individual landowners are upset, industry leaders are, at most, cautious.

Energy and forestry companies hold billions of dollars in permits and titles that could, under the revised law, be "rescinded." Mineral rights are closely held, particularly those issued to early settlers and companies that include a right to everything underground. Two companies alone, Encana Corp. and Cenovus Energy Inc., own roughly five-million hectares of such land, an area the size of Nova Scotia.

"If you take the [original]legislation at face value, it has significant ramifications for property rights in the province," said one industry source.

But industry has largely been swayed by government.

"We understand that the intent [of the law]is not to cause harm to rights holders," said David Pryce, vice-president of operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"To my knowledge, there hasn't been removal of rights without compensation," added Jim LeLacheur, chair of the Alberta Forest Products Association.

Concerns will linger about the cabinet powers. Only when the regional plans are completed (the first, in the oil sands region, is expected this year) will the full reach of the law shake out.

"Could this threaten some economic interests of landowners, whether it's rural owners or foresters or energy companies? Yeah, absolutely," Prof. Kaplinsky said. "But you don't have protection in this country of your economic interests, based on [existing land]laws … there's nothing special about that in ALSA."

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Calgary

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