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Ricardo Ranch: Questions raised about environmental impact of new Calgary development

Nathaniel Schmidt wanted to see firsthand the area that would be impacted with the development of Ricardo Ranch in southeast Calgary.

So, he travelled down there last Saturday to find out.

Three Ricardo Ranch business cases were approved in late July – Seton Ridge, Logan Landing and Nostalgia – all built on lands adjacent to the Bow River. It could be home to between 16,000 and 20,000 people when fully built out.  Much of this land is identified in the Ricardo Ranch Area Structure Plan (ASP) as being environmentally significant areas.

(Of the developers – Brookfield, Genesis and Jayman Telsec – we reached out to Brookfield for comment on this story. No response was provided.)

There are 15 different biophysical features captured in the ASP (pages 74 to 79), many that suggested further study and preservation.

Schmidt first spoke about the environmental impact of the five proposed communities when they were put forward to the Infrastructure and Planning Committee in June. He’d done some prior research on the area and was familiar with it as he likes to get out to enjoy outdoor pursuits around the Calgary area.  

“I thought, well, on a practical level and an ecological level… why are they putting a huge development here?” Schmidt said.

Schmidt went out and documented what he saw and then posted it to Twitter.

“There was more there than I expected as far as what species are still remaining, how healthy it is, despite the disturbances, and how much actually untouched land there was there,” he said.

Schmidt said he saw 30 different bird species; there was a mix of songbirds and shorebirds and waterfowl that is rather rare. He also saw the bank swallow colonies – he said 98 per cent of that population is gone.

Protections in the ASP and business cases

“Really, what immediately I thought was that this should be a park, it shouldn’t be a development,” he said.

The ASP does provide broad suggestion for mitigation and preservation. The business cases are slightly more prescriptive. Each includes preservation of the escarpment slope and adhering to setbacks and mitigation measures for development around the natural features.

They also discuss specific preservation – including that of a blue heron colony.

One of the most critical aspects doesn’t come in the environmental section of the ASP. It comes in the land-use portion (map, page 20). Outlined there are the neighbourhood areas allowed in the Ricardo Ranch ASP. At this point, much of the neighbourhood area abuts the environmentally significant areas.

Some portions of the proposed developments are in the middle of the environmental areas.

Chris Wolfe, senior planner with the City of Calgary said they’re now in the more precise stages of analyzing the land uses in the area. That includes a deeper look at the biophysical impacts of development.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking to apply provincial and municipal policies and legislation,” he said.

“And the lands that are protected will eventually wind up as environmental reserve.”

When asked what concrete things Calgarians could see in the area to show the city is protecting the environmentally significant areas, his answer was straightforward.

“The concrete things you’ll see hopefully aren’t concrete; they’re the natural areas themselves,” he said.

“We’re not supposed to have a lot of active intervention. We’re supposed to be limiting public access to the areas, not encouraging it.”

Public access area

Wolfe acknowledged that in a post development scenario, a significant portion of the lands are going to transfer to the public. In a legal sense, these are accessible to anyone, he said.

“We will, from a convenience point of view, limit the number of people that actually go in and disrupt these areas to try to keep them as natural as possible,” Wolfe said.

While they will try to limit it, the ASP outlines a green corridor for the area, along with a regional pathway.  Further, there’s a boat launch and day use area planned. The Jayman Telsec plan calls for a hospitality node with a fishing village. It could include a hotel and convention space, according to business case documents.

Keeping 16,000 to 20,000 people out of the area, plus other Calgarians, may be a challenge. Wolfe said they’re not going to establish pathways in the avulsion channel in the area, created by the 2013 flood.

“We have defined routes outside on the edges of the environmental reserve areas and we’ll have limited points where pedestrian access across the slopes is possible,” he said.

Schmidt said there’s some hope the development can be contained. Still, he’s worried land in the environmental areas will have to be further disrupted to ensure homes in the area are protected from flood. It resides on a 1-in-75 year flood plain.

Depending on federal input around the bank swallows, and a habitat designation, amendments may be made to ensure they have a foraging area, Schmidt said.

“So, I think there’s avenues there,” he said.

Raising awareness of the trade-off

One of the pictures of the Ricardo Ranch area taken by Nathaniel Schmidt. COURTESY NATHANIEL SCHMIDT

In a perfect world, Schmidt would like to see the development shut down and the area turned into a wildlife preserve. He knows that’s likely not going to happen; the compensation amount just isn’t feasible. 

He’d like to see the wetlands preserved as a carbon sink – especially if Calgary’s climate strategy is to be taken seriously.

Most of all, he wanted to raise awareness. It’s something he said he should have done when the ASP first came forward in 2019.

“That’s really when I should have done this. But, you know, it’s maybe not too little too late at this point,” he said.

“Especially if the right people are paying attention. Given my level of expertise, I feel like the best thing I can do is just make as many people as possible aware of what the trade-off is here.”