Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell said Saturday that he hopes the ongoing removal of 4,900 trees opposite Victoria General Hospital can be stopped so that alternatives can be broached with property owner Allen Vandekerkhove.
“I think it would be in everyone’s best interest to stop logging right now just to have the conversation,” Atwell said.
Saanich staff gave Vandekerkhove a tree-removal permit on Oct. 14 under the provisions of B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve, based on his intention to grow hay on the 24-acre site on Watkiss Way.
“I don’t think that there’s a window of time here that we’re racing against, and I don’t want to get in the business of telling private property owners what to do,” Atwell told the Times Colonist.
“This is a rare circumstance in which there is a large community interest and community benefit at stake . . . simply to have a park in this area for people to enjoy, to have a place for wildlife to nest and co-exist in this urban-rural environment that we have.”
Atwell said he would like to see if there are options rather than such extensive logging that could be considered, “because people are in love with this forest and it’s very difficult for them to part with it.”
But he understands Vandekerkhove may be frustrated by the process his $100,000 proposal met when he sought to have the site considered for a sewage treatment plant — an option that may have left many of the trees standing. Saanich council twice voted not to send the proposal to the Capital Regional District.
“At the present, I don’t think he feels he has any options — he’s been rebuffed by government so many times,” Atwell said.
Vandekerhove is known for donating land for public uses or making trades with his large holdings, the mayor said.
“He’s a very clever man, a compassionate man and a philanthropist as well. He doesn’t need the money. Maybe we can find a solution.”
By Thursday evening, about 450 trees had come down, said biologist Thomas Roy, who is monitoring the site to ensure work follows provincial legislation covering water and wildlife.
Tree removal is weather dependent, slowing when it rains. “I expect an operation like this would normally take a few months.”
Vandekerkhove said last week that he was not open to meeting with community leaders.
“Impossible, we’re totally committed. I can’t stop it now and I don’t want to stop it. I just want to do what I want to do based on the rules that apply to me.”
Asked about meeting with local mayors, he said: “I don’t think I can help them.
“If I was robbing banks or killing people or doing something outrageous, I might be sorry about it, but when I’m trying to be a farmer, there’s nothing to be sorry about. . . . We just want to continue farming, because that’s what we’re zoned for.”
The land was for sale for five years and could have been bought by anyone, government included, he said. Vandekerkhove paid $1.2 million for the property.
“What used to be a view of thick forest is now an open space, making visible for the first time from the houses over on West Burnside Road,” said Mark Cacovic, who lives in View Royal at the Saanich border.
“The absence of trees saddens me greatly.”
A member of the Habitat Acquisition Trust, Cacovic said the organization is trying to ensure a sufficient tree buffer around the wetland at the south end of the property.
Vandekerkhove responded: “We’re not going to go and cut the trees down right against the highwater mark of the swamp.”