Saanich resident Dave Poje is trying to convince Saanich and View Royal to buy 30 acres of private forest next to Victoria General Hospital for a park. The forest helps form a divide between rural Saanich and the growing suburban neighbourhoods of View Royal.

Advocate pushes for new forest park in Saanich

A Saanich family is leading a low-key but determined effort to preserve the 28-acre forest as a nature park near Watkiss Road

For people focused on arriving at Victoria General Hospital or nearby single residential neighbourhoods, the second-growth forest on Watkiss Way can speed by in a green blur.

That’s how it was for Dave Poje, a retired Saanich resident while on visits with his daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law in View Royal.

“I drove by the forest regularly,” Poje says. “Then two years ago at my granddaughter’s birthday, all of a sudden it popped. Wouldn’t this place be fantastic for a park? That was the beginning of the trek.”

Poje and his family are leading a low-key but determined effort to preserve the 28-acre forest as a nature park, tentatively called Watkiss Park. Currently and for decades, it has been private land within the provincial agricultural land reserve, and a remnant of one family’s much larger 600-acre property that once included the hospital grounds.

“We would like Saanich to negotiate for the property. I’ve sent a proposal to Saanich and View Royal saying why don’t they get together on this?” Poje says. “It’s unlikely Saanich would fund the park by itself. I envision some kind of (cost sharing) arrangement.”

Turning large swaths of private property into parkland is never easy. The forest itself sits against the zigzagging municipal boundary of rural Saanich and abuts the western leg of Watkiss Way opposite the hospital and nearby suburban neighbourhoods in View Royal. The land’s assessed value is $1.4 million, and arguably, Saanich would face the prospect of purchasing a forest that would most directly benefit View Royal taxpayers.

Poje stresses time is of the essence – as designated agricultural land, it has the potential to be clear cut for farming purposes. “You could wind up with 28 acres totally cleared,” he said. “With the loss of forest a concern in Saanich, this is an example of (potential) conflict between farmland and forest cover.”

Native vegetation covers the vast majority of forest floor under a healthy canopy of Douglas firs. Poje reckons the property holds five distinct ecosystems – forest, meadows, watercourses, wetlands and a rocky summit. A few trees bear scars of a fire from decades ago, and the land was likely logged at the turn of the century.

The forest isn’t entirely pristine. Trail access off Watkiss Way leads to an elaborate but illicit mountain bike park carved between the trees. Another part of the forest holds a skeletal lean-to shack of branches, complete with torn plastic that presumably walled the shelter. An armchair next to ashes of a campfire strewn with garbage gives away recent camping.

These blemishes are minor, Poje says, and easily cleaned up.

“We want to open this up to the public. It keeps the campers out,” he says. “I can’t believe there is such a beautiful forest in the city limits. We still need larger parks. Even in Saanich.

“This could become a natural park, a mini-Mount Doug Park. It could have a few trails around the perimeter and a trail or two in the centre. It wouldn’t be a high maintenance cost.”

Saanich won’t say if it is negotiating with the landowner for the property. Parks manager Rae Roer said Saanich is aware of Poje’s request.

“No documents or plans identify a need for a park in that area, but the request is under review,” he said.

In the past two years, Saanich has spent millions acquiring new parkland. In February 2011, it purchased the 66-acre Panama Flats for $2.4 million from Island Berry Co. In July this year Saanich gained most of Haro Woods as natural parkland in a deal with the Capital Regional District that would see Saanich pay the CRD $1.488 million and give it 8.5 acres of land near Hartland Landfill.

Saanich Coun. Judy Brownoff has talked with Poje about purchasing the forest, and can see its merits, but noted it sits awkwardly close to another municipality. “The land is in Saanich, but it would definitely be a park for View Royal,” Brownoff said. “And more parkland creates more park to maintain, even if it is a natural park.”

But in the wake of Saanich moving to restrict tree cutting within the municipality, and a report released on July 25 that noted Saanich is leading the region in canopy loss – 378 acres in six years – Brownoff said saving forestland should be a priority.

“I know the site well. It probably is an amazing habitat for wildlife,” she said. “Saanich parks staff will work on (the proposal) for the next few months before it comes to council.”

Coming from the other side of the municipal boundary, View Royal Coun. David Screech toured the forest and called the property “a wonderful opportunity to create a park.”

A portion of the private forest land in Saanich is an isolated two-acre tree-covered hill at the southeast corner of Watkiss Way and Hospital Way, at the corner of the municipal boundary. Screech suggested one option is to rezone that parcel for property development in exchange for the property owner donating the remaining 28 acres as park.

“It could be done without exchanging money. We just have to think outside the box a bit,” Screech said. “It’s worth pursuing if we can make all the pieces click.”

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