Back in the 1960s, Karen Martens’ neighbours kept a cow, some hens, and a few pigs in the backyard of their home in Neubergthal, a village southeast of Altona.
“I took it for granted that I could get milk from across the street,” says Martens. “I took it for granted that eggs were always available.”
Backyard livestock began to disappear in the 1970s, but is making a comeback today, says Martens. A few families are raising chickens again, and one keeps a few cows and pigs, a turkey and a ram.
“Our latest newcomer wanted to come here because he’s a farmer,” she says.
The village life she remembers from her youth is unchanged, and she says there’s still a strong sense of neighbourliness among the 130 or so residents.
A creative way to plan
Neubergthal, a Parks Canada National Historic Site, is one of a dozen villages in the RM of Rhineland laid out in a historic settlement pattern of 19th century Mennonite settlers. A newly adopted development plan for the region aims to protect that way of life — as well as preserving farmland, accommodating an expanding local population, and the lifestyles of both town and country living.
“We’ve tried to cover off a lot of different things with the plan. Hopefully, we’ve done it in a creative way,” says RM of Rhineland Reeve Don Wiebe, chair of the RPGA Planning District.
The district was formed two years ago by Wiebe’s municipality and the towns of Plum Coulee, Gretna, and Altona with the goal of revising an outdated regional development plan. The new plan eschews the usual language of residential, agricultural, and industrial zones, in favour of “country living,” “village living,” and “town living.”
They took this approach because they could all agree on a couple of fundamentals, said Wiebe.
“We agreed overall that we don’t want to depopulate the rural area,” he said. “We also didn’t want it to be carved up in such a way that it’s a mess.”
Vibrant rural culture
The goal of the updated development plan is to create a place with a “vibrant rural culture and economy,” with each distinct “living” component contributing towards it.
“Country living” recognizes the need to maintain large agricultural land parcels, with policies directing future country homes to existing “country living clusters.” These are sites where homes have already been built and tend to have smaller tracts of land in their midst which don’t easily accommodate farm equipment. The plan also allows farmers, if they choose, to split their yard sites and build an additional home.
For example, a 10-acre farm yard could be split in two, says Mike Rempel CAO of Rhineland. That makes room for more people to live in the country without carving out acreages from larger tracts of farmland.
“By allowing this, we are able to protect farmland,” said Rempel. “We can put people into established lots, by buying part of an established yard, instead of starting from open field.”
The approach also jived with provincial land-use policies that favour development plans that preserve farmland wherever possible.
The plan also spells out normal farm practices and makes clear what those who choose to live in the country should expect from agricultural activities around them.
For Gretna, Altona, and Plum Coulee, as well as the local urban district of Rosenfeld, there are policies under “town living” that call for smaller lot sizes and multi-family housing to minimize land use, as well as demands on infrastructure.
There are also policies for dealing with the “fringe” or land that surrounds the towns. Provincial land-use policies require that towns have a buffer of land around them — usually about a mile — so the town can expand. But that buffer has the effect of leaving a “doughnut” of undeveloped space between a town and surrounding rural municipality. The RPGA Planning District’s plan avoids that by permitting development in this space, provided tax- and service-sharing agreements are in place.
“Both the town and RM will also need to approve developments inside the fringe,” added Rempel.
Meanwhile, the “village living” component calls for preserving the historical development pattern of the village sites, as well as the lifestyle lived there, while permitting some forms of residential growth.
Jacqueline East, a planner with Winnipeg-based Dillon Consulting, who worked with the planning district, calls both the plan and the process used to create it “incredibly unique.”
Officials seized an opportunity to take development planning well beyond a legislative requirement, said East.
“A lot of the development plans out there almost look like zoning bylaws,” she said, adding that using plain-language terms such as village and town living make the concepts easier to understand.
“They’ve called the parts of the community exactly what the community understands them to be,” she said.
The plan also clearly spells out what kind of a place people want it to be in the future, she says.
“Those three different ways of choosing to live are very different development patterns, with different infrastructure requirements,” she said.
“They’ve essentially sorted out all of the issues that are important when you’re trying to plan a community.”
Also impressive was the partnership struck between the Rhineland municipality, Plum Coulee, Gretna and Altona, as well as the public engagement that went on throughout the process, she said.
The community-visioning exercises that helped shape the plan were done as a pilot project led by staff with Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives and local government officials. Community engagement is now recommended as a best practice for planning, said Ruth Mealy, MAFRI business development specialist.
The Rhineland, Plum Coulee, Gretna, Altona Planning District Development Plan can be found online at: www.rpga planningdistrict.com.