By Anna Smith
Construction has begun on phase two of a local improvement plan intended to bring raw water distribution to Winnifred.
The process for this began in 2018, said Stewart Payne, Municipal Enforcement and Director of Emergency Management with the County of Forty Mile.
“A consultant was commissioned in 2018 to conduct a study of the hamlet’s developmental needs. Through the consultation process, it was identified that a number of services were desired by the residents of the hamlet,” said Payne. “The County proceeded with road improvements and provided a solid waste collection program. As indicated by the study, the community placed high priority on water and specifically a raw water supply for gardens and yard beautification.”
The County engaged the consultant to design and construct a raw water pipeline to bring raw water from the main St. Mary River Irrigation District’s canal west of the hamlet into the community. A contractor was confirmed in 2020 and construction began in 2021 with completion in 2022, said Payne.
This first phase was covered by the county, and desire was expressed by residents to have the water distributed directly to the properties, said Payne.
“When asked if they would pay for it, most affirmed they would,” said Payne. “The Municipal Government Act includes guidelines for cost recovery on local improvements. This includes informing all affected parties by sharing a proposed local improvement plan and allowing them 30 days to review and respond.”
However, some residents and landowners in Winnifred feel as if the project has gone forward without a chance for them to properly engage, with some landowners who live elsewhere still possibly unaware, said former landowner Duane Olson.
“A lot of these other people, they don’t even live anywhere close. They live in BC, they live in Calgary, Saskatchewan, all over, and they own property in Winnifred,” said Olson.
“And they’ve never been notified or anything, they have no idea what’s going on until it shows up in their taxes.”
The County said the landowners and residents would have to get home so all the land owners would have to come together and vote on it, and you’d have to have 51% to shut this down, said Olson, including a new clause that requires a majority of the assessed value. So the people who live there with a house inherently have much more say than those with vacant property, even if the landowner might have significantly more property.
The total cost of the local improvement is divided against the total land area affected by the improvement to derive a cost per square metre. The cost per square metre is multiplied by the area of each individual parcel, said Payne.
Winnifred landowner Eric Musekamp believes that this method of determining the amount paid by each affected taxpayer to be unjust, compared to paying based on assessed value of the property.
“The whole project is 7% of the assessed value of the town. So if we were assessed 7%, you know, we would support it. I wouldn’t have gone out and suggested that we do this, but now that it’s here, we would think that it’d be fair,” said Musekamp.
Musekamp himself is set to pay approximately $35,000 on the project due to the amount of undeveloped land he owns, which is nearly 40% of the land’s assessed value. He adds that he believes that some landowners and residents may be unable to pay for their stated share of the project, and could lose their land and homes as a result of a project they didn’t ask for.
Fellow landowner Darlene Dunlop pointed out that while residents with large amounts of property will be paying significantly more, the MGA gives the power to those with higher-assessed property value,of which she takes issue.
Dunlop does note that Winnifred is an anomaly with so much undeveloped land and a small handful of expensive homes, but suggested that perhaps the Act shouldn’t have been applied how it was due to this fact.
The County notes that parcel sizes are varying throughout the hamlet, and believes that using assessment to apportion the tax levy punishes those who have made investment to develop over those who will benefit without the investment.
Musekamp stressed that largely he took issue with how business was conducted, with no invitations to more recent meetings and the nature of how they could interact with what was going to happen
“The big part of the Act that we have trouble with is the reverse onus business, they sent us a letter. And you had to actually study the whole package to realize that this was actually a done deal,” said Musekamp. “So the clock was ticking so that the Act provides that the only way you can stop this is to start a petition against it. And you have to have over half the value and two thirds of the people to be able to stop it. It should be the other way around, if somebody decides they want this.”
Other issues brought forward was a mismatch of priorities, as Winnifred does not presently have potable water.
“As indicated in the study, raw water was established as a priority by the residents of the Hamlet. Potable water is uneconomical at the present time.” said Payne.
Payne explained that for this project, every affected property owner received a letter and the Local Improvement Plan package. From that package, one property owner called into the County for more details and one property owner, claiming to represent a number of other property owners and residents, has approached the County to express their dismay, enquire, and request documentation.
Musekamp said that he found the manner in which the Council made effected landowners aware to not be in line with good faith engagement, and feels as if he’s done everything in his power to reach out to council to express his concerns.
“It says in the Act, you’re supposed to engage in good faith with all the affected landowners, and I do not feel they did that,” said Musekamp. “ I actually directly asked counsel, I sent them a registered letter. And then I attended counsel and directly asked him to stop the 30-day countdown and engage with us in good faith. Do the things that are said in the legislation you’re supposed to do, give us due process, I said it’s right in the letter and right in the council meeting minutes. And they declined.”
The County has said that they have made every effort to consult with all Winnifred property owners during the 2018 study and in accordance with the requirements of the MGA, all affected property owners have been sent a package which includes the Local Improvement Plan in July of 2022. The County administration does acknowledge, between these two processes, allowing the local residents to advertise the public meetings may not have been the most effective way to coordinate them and will make every attempt to improve the process moving forward.