Saanich triples ALR dedication at Panama Flats

Saanich wants part of Panama Flats in agriculture reserve

Jeff Bell, Times Colonist

Panama Flats

In a rare step, Saanich council is trying to put land into the Agricultural Land Reserve instead of the usual practice of trying to take it out.

Just maintaining the existing amount of agriculturally designated land in B.C. is a common concern, but the Saanich plan calls for moving 14.5 hectares in Panama Flats to the ALR. An adjoining 8.5 hectares already has the classification.

The 14.5 hectares has been farmed for years but has never had ALR status.

“It was a somewhat historical event,” Saanich Coun. Dean Murdock said of this week’s public hearing vote to designate the parcel. “Local governments don’t often get the opportunity to add land to the Agricultural Land Reserve.”

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said he has never seen it in the municipality during his 28 years as a councillor and mayor, and doesn’t recall it happening in the capital region.

The decision rests with the Agricultural Land Commission.

“legitimate concerns about the potential impact of an active farm surrounded by a residential area.”

“Of course, that’s always a challenge that communities face, particularly in Saanich where we have this interface between agriculture and residential, more suburban communities.”

Association vice-president Marlene Todd said one issue is a fear that the change to ALR designation could result in Saanich losing control over how the land is used. Councillors said that won’t happen, “but I’m a bit skeptical about it,” she said.

Another concern is the affect the change could have on migratory birds, Todd said. “They said they’re going to designate a small area for them, but this is a very sensitive area as far as the migratory birds flying north. This is where they stop.”

Murdock said councillors feel owning the land will help them avoid problems.

“What council was convinced by is we’re going to continue to have control as the landowner over what goes on there, so we can make every effort to mitigate the impact of farming.”

The parcel up for ALR designation is part of 25 hectares Saanich bought at Panama Flats in 2011 for $2.4 million from Island Berry Co. The company’s plan to farm cranberries raised flooding concerns for the municipality.

“The intent at the time of purchase was clear,” Murdock said. “We wanted to protect the flood plain and preserve the farmland for food production.

“We’re now, I think, clearing a fairly significant hurdle in order to ensure that it’s protected in perpetuity for food production.”

One of the next steps in the plan is to seek expressions of interest for the land. One large farm or a number of smaller operations are possible, Murdock said. No farming is going on right now.

Murdock said the Saanich plan also calls for a perimeter walking trail in the area as well as restoration work on the Colquitz River.