The fate of an unused parcel of agricultural land in suburban Gordon Head is now in the hands of the Agricultural Land Commission.
The four-acre property at 1516 Mount Douglas Cross Rd. was recently slated to become a 12,000-hen poultry operation or, failing that, a cattle farm with 100 cows.
But neighbours, outraged that Saanich council painted the landowners into a corner where farming was the only remaining option, rallied against the aggressive farm plans and asked council Monday night for reconsideration of a residential subdivision instead.
Instead, council voted 8-1 to send the owner’s application to remove it from the agricultural land reserve to the ALC, without comment from council, putting the decision squarely in the hands of the provincial agency.
“It gets us back to (a point) where the development application is neither approved or defeated, and it gets us back to neutral on the land reserve issue, because (without comment) we literally are in a neutral position,” said Mayor Frank Leonard.
But John Alexander, the lawyer representing the Alberg family, which owns the property, says his clients are “quite disappointed” with council’s decision, and is urging the family to move forward on the cattle feed lot to protect their land.
“The land could get caught in the middle where all of the ALR usage rights disappear when it’s removed from the land reserve, and yet there’s no zoning that allows for residential development,” Alexander said.
He said the only options the Albergs have left are going the legal route and indicating to Saanich that they don’t want an application to go to the land commission until the property is rezoned residential, or go the farming route and begin construction of the cattle feed lot.
Some 150 residents jammed into the small council chambers Monday for the committee of the whole meeting, and only a handful of whom vocally expressed concerns to council.
“It makes no sense for this to remain in the ALR. It makes no sense that this should be a chicken farm or an intensive cattle farm,” said Stephen Fletcher, who lives across the street from the property. “If there’s a tasteful opportunity for it to be development, the community will endorse that.”
Saanich council twice rejected plans to develop the property, first in March 2011 when the Alberg family proposed 16-lot subdivision, and then again in July 2012, when the family proposed a 12-lot subdivision plus community garden.
Both times council rejected the development proposals, with a majority of council saying they don’t support residential development on farm land.
But the Mount Douglas Cross Road property, owned by siblings Don Alberg, Gord Alberg and Florence Davis, hasn’t been farmed in decades, noted Mercer Place resident Mark Vukobrat.
“If this property is taken out of the ALR there is no loss of food production because there’s been no food production on this land for some time,” he said, noting a petition he circulated in the neighbourhood saw 233 area residents say they’d rather have homes than an intensive farm nearby.
Alexander said, if necessary, the Albergs will contact the ALC directly and request that any application Saanich may send on their behalf should not be considered.
“(Council) came up with the motion (Monday night) with no notice to the owner, no opportunity for the owner to express their view on it,” Alexander said. “They really felt blindsided.”
Monday’s meeting was originally intended to focus on amending official documents in Saanich – the official community plan and the Gordon Head local area plan – which conflict in terms of land use plans for the Alberg property.
Coun. Dean Murdock, the sole dissenting vote at the meeting, said the motion to send the application, without comment, to the ALC is “a failure to the residents who elected us to represent them.”
“The discussion was pitched as black and white, but I think there was a large grey area that was unexplored,” he said. “What we’ve done is pack the whole thing up and send it to the ALC. That’s basically a recipe to unlock this (for residential development), and then it’s just a discussion around what kind of development goes here.”
Saanich South MLA Lana Popham, the NDP’s agriculture critic, spoke at the council meeting about smart farming. She said she felt Saanich “decided that this property isn’t a farm years ago,” by developing everything else around it.
The agriculture critic took the stance that, given its location, this property should be developed, instead of farmed.
“It’s a difficult choice that I’ve made, and I’ve probably disappointed some folks in the audience. As far as Saanich as a community, I think it’s a better direction to have a subdivision,” she said.
Coun. Judy Brownoff stressed that she doesn’t want to see a net loss if this parcel of land is removed from the ALR. “If land comes out of the ALR, equal value land should go back in,” she said, suggesting a portion of Saanich’s newly acquired Panama Flats that isn’t currently protected agricultural land.
Leonard, too, has previously suggested including more of Panama Flats in the ALR.
If all goes ahead as council anticipates, Leonard says the next steps in the process are for Saanich staff to send the application to the ALC. That process could take months.
In an email Alexander sent the Albergs on Tuesday, he said he doesn’t anticipate that ALC process to be complete until June or July 2013. He suggested moving ahead with the feed lot in January or February to preempt any ALC decision.