Saanich is changing course on the 62-acre Panama Flats and sticking with the status quo of protecting it as a wetland and park area.
Council voted unanimously Monday night to abandon the long-awaited staff plan that hinged on expanding current parcel of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) from 8.5 hectares (21 acres) to 23 ha (56 acres). It marked a change in council values since a 2013 concept plan for Panama Flats was accepted in 2014 and entered into the 2019-2023 strategic plan.
If there’s any disagreement among council, it didn’t show on Feb. 22, as two more motions to explore small-scale farming on a portion of Panama Flats and elsewhere in Saanich passed unanimously.
“This property was always bought to be more than a flood plain, it was to be farmed. We’re (still) looking at a way to do that in a way that is compatible with the surrounding residential uses, protects the wetland, the bird sanctuary and other environmental elements,” said Coun. Zac De Vries.
Saanich illustration of Panama Flats showing area that was destined for ALR (in yellow). An 8.5 hectare chunk of the yellow is in the ALR, however, Saanich chose to explore farming sections of the Panama Flats area without using the ALR. (Saanich.ca Image)
Coun. Nathalie Chambers agreed with a motion by Mayor Fred Haynes that putting the oft-flooded wetlands into the ALR would limit some of Saanich’s control over the lands.
“We maintain control of farming that can occur and will not experience any of the tree loss that is permitted under the ALR right to farm legislation. We have decided to protect it forever as a wetland, a bird sanctuary and a special place for multiple uses to occur,” Chambers said.
De Vries motioned that staff work with CRFair (Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable) to explore the best options for small-scale food production on Panama Flats. It would create an opportunity for a new community garden, outlined as a priority in Saanich’s strategic plan, and also to set aside land for a farming incubator model such as Haliburton Farm.
With the ALR submission pulled, it piqued Coun. Rebecca Mersereau to ask if Panama Flats is still the best candidate for Saanich-owned land to be included in the farmland trust.
Mersereau immediately followed that with a third motion, this one to further explore the use of municipally-owned land for community gardens and for farming.
The motion specifically directed staff to also look at land not currently in the ALR or zoned for residential use, because ultimately what Saanich and the CRD are interested in achieving is an increase in the land available for agriculture, to increase local food security, Mersereau said.
“I remain confident that Saanich will introduce small farm models at some part of the using agroecology will still also content not to put the property in the ALR,” Haynes said.
Former three-term Saanich councillor Dean Murdock told Black Press Media it was always accepted a good portion of Panama Flats would serve as floodplain and, in the longer-term, wetland. He also supports the roll back of the ALC process, but would like to see at least some sliver of the land be considered for the CRFair’s farmland trust program.
“I was really pleased with the motion that will see Saanich consult with residents and farming experts to have small-scale farming on the property. There’s an opportunity to have a mix of wetland protection, small-scale food production and a walking trail. Panama Flats can and should incorporate all three of those elements.”
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