Logging continues on Watkiss Way property

Mayors of Saanich and View Royal unable to halt plans to remove 4,900 trees

Logging has commenced on parcels of the 12-hectare Watkiss Way property that sits opposite the grounds of the Victoria General Hospital.

Workers busily installed a chain-link fence along the Watkiss Way property across from the Victoria General Hospital on Monday morning.

The fencing is part of the logging operation which has already felled a third of the 4,900 trees permitted under Agricultural Land Reserve rules, said owner Allen Vandekerkhove.

His family has grown hay on the neighbouring property since the 1980s, having initially raised Charolais cattle in 1976.

“First of all, the fencing is to stop [homeless] tenting on our property, we can’t have people there during logging,” said Vandekerkhove, adding people have been cutting the fence to go on his Burnside West property since the ‘70s.

“We have to secure our farm.”

The 80-year-old farmer and former owner of local Payless Gas stations plans to clear about 24 acres on the Watkiss Way property he purchased a few years ago and add that to his neighbouring Burnside hay farm.

However, the farming decision has drawn disappointment not only from  local environmental groups but the mayors of Saanich and View Royal (which borders the 30-acre Watkiss Way property).

“I think we need to find a higher and better use for the property,” said Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell, who’s been receiving letters from residents that use the property like a park. Some have sent him photos of owls.

“It’s private land but people have essentially been on the private land enjoying it as a park, and now they’re wondering, well why wasn’t this a park,” Atwell said.

The mayor is hoping Vandekerkhove will put a halt to the logging and come to the table to see what other options there are.

But that’s not likely, said Vandekerkhove. Turning the property into a park has been talked about before but the land was for sale for years before his family bought it, he added.

Allen and his wife Loreen were no strangers to the spotlight in the past, as they started the Allen and Loreen Vandekerkhove Family Foundation in 1990 following the sale of their family business. They’ve since given $10 million to charity.

Earlier this year Vandekerkhove was open to either selling or leasing about half the Watkiss Way land to the Capital Regional District as possible wastewater treatment and biosolids processing facilities. But Saanich council twice voted against forwarding the property to the CRD for consideration. That proposal cost Vandekerkhove $100,000.

View Royal Mayor David Screech echoed Atwell’s comments that the logging came as a surprise to many in the political world.

“It would have been a courtesy to at least discuss it with us before it started,” Screech said, adding that transporting the logs off the property would violate View Royal’s bylaws on truck traffic but now their hands are tied.

“View Royal sent a letter last week that was a bit strange … they’re asking us what we’re doing about noise, traffic, stumps and trees… but we’ve had lots of questions for them that weren’t answered and at the end of it, we’re in Saanich,” Vandekerkhove said.

Because six of the 30 acres on Watkiss are sensitive wetland, or swamp, the logging will observe the proper setbacks.

But Screech didn’t see much point in trying to pause the project.

“At this point you wonder if the damage is already done,” he said. “The owner has no intention of stopping. To me, it’s a done deal.”

Screech noted that before the current property owner, Allen Vandekerkhove, purchased the site, View Royal approached Saanich with a partnership deal to see the treed area near the wetlands turned into a park.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t go far,” he said.

With files from Katie Engqvist.