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Saanich mayor: clay court proposal 'dividing the community'

Not since 1986, when Saanich council was considering a proposal to develop houses on the edge of Cedar Hill Park, has the community been so fiercely divided, says Mayor Frank Leonard.

And perhaps it's coincidence that the issue that's pitting neighbour against neighbour in 2014 is a proposal to develop part of the very same park.

"I saw meetings like this to save Cedar Hill Park in 1986 when I was running for council, so it's like deja vu. I've seen this before and therefore I was anticipating this kind of dynamic. But it's dividing the community, and I don't like that," Leonard said following Thursday's meeting on a plan to build eight clay tennis courts behind Cedar Hill rec centre.

The committee of the whole meeting was a continuation of one that began in November 2013, which was adjourned because so many people wanted to speak to the issue. And on Thursday, after hearing from 92 speakers so far, Leonard adjourned the meeting yet again, as dozens of people were still lined up wanting to have their say.

"This is the first issue I've seen go to three meetings," Leonard said. "I'm dismayed that this is lining up where there's winners and losers – that does distress me. The more this goes along and the more the division gets deeper, that dismays me, particularly over something that is an activity in a park."

The division isn't sitting well with Coun. Vicki Sanders, either, who said while most residents are being considerate to one another, some people are being "disrespectful" and "inappropriate."

At least two Saanich residents – both supporters of the Cedar Hill Clay Court Tennis Society's proposal – reminded councillors that a municipal election is coming up this year, and receiving their vote hinges on the outcome of the clay court decision.

"At election time I support candidates who facilitate enterprises which promote healthy living and provide the greatest good for Saanich residents like myself," said Margaret Laxton, who received a loud boo from the opponents in the crowd.

"I think (that comment is) absolutely inappropriate. We're a very mature, well-educated council that makes decisions based on knowledge and evaluating the situation," Sanders said after the meeting. "To question the decision we make in that manner is threatening, intimidating and it's demeaning."

Unlike the Nov. 28 meeting, which was dominated by speakers opposed to the plan, on Thursday more than two-thirds of the speakers were tennis proponents.

"This is an opportunity for Saanich to truly be innovative and cutting edge. How amazing would it be for us to have the only clay court facility on Vancouver Island? If we don't do it, somebody else is going to," said Saanich resident Jane Cunnington.

Many opponents have told council they support the idea of more tennis courts in the region, just not at Cedar Hill Park. Speaker Bob Chong suggested that the tennis society contact the owners of Bear Mountain as a plausible alternative location to build.

Last week the Langford-based organization released its long-term vision for the resort site, which includes a plan to build a world-class tennis facility.

Sy Silverberg, founder of the newly established Society for Kids at Tennis, says he wants to see the clay courts built at Cedar Hill Park. He says Kids at Tennis, once its up and running, will provide children who don't have the financial means to pay for lessons and equipment with opportunities to learn and play the sport.

He said he's spoken with John Miller, president of the clay court society, who would be willing to provide them with court time.

"What we're hoping to do in the future is to run our own programs, set up  classes each week for a number of kids, and run them in the public tennis courts," Silverberg said.

This year he anticipates spending between $7,000 and $10,000 to pay for kids to participate in existing tennis programs run out of Saanich, Oak Bay and Victoria rec centres.

Silverberg says the goal of his program is "to create (for kids) an attractive alternative to the ever-increasing lure of drugs and the streets."

The clay court society proposes to build its facility, including eight courts and a tennis pavilion, on land currently occupied by two little-used ball diamonds.

Opponents have focused on a number of issues with the project, including a lack of meaningful public consultation, the loss of green space, the potential impacts on Bowker Creek, and the society's request for a $100,000 grant an a $250,000 interest-free loan from Saanich.

Ann Wilk lives on Megaw Place; the park is in her backyard. From her living room she says she can look down onto the land that's up for debate, currently used in the spring and summer by Special Olympics baseball players.

"The sound of a baseball hitting a bat, that's like the start of summer for me. Seeing people playing with their dogs in the field, playing in the grass, running around in the open space is priceless. It's part of the reason we bought the house," she said, before turning her attention to her concerns about light pollution, noise, parking and the environment. "The tranquility in nature that we have now will not be there. … That needs to remain greenspace, in my view."

Saanich has not yet announced when and where the next committee of the whole meeting will take place.

For more information on the clay court proposal, visit saanich.ca/parkrec/parks/projects/current/cedar-hill-tennis.html.

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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