When a cow farm popped up in the middle of a residential Gordon Head community last February, neighbour Janet Stark saw a surge of four-legged visitors to her property. But these animals weren’t of the bovine variety.
“When the cows came in, I believe they disrupted the rats’ habitat. And I’m assuming the grain and poop and seed and water were perfect rat attractants, so we had real issues,” she said. “We set up rat traps around the property. We stopped counting at somewhere between 40 and 50 rats in a four-month period. Bless my husband, he dealt with them. But he showed me some of the whoppers – some of them were the size of a small cat. We’re talking monster-sized rats.”
The Starks’ home backs on to the northwest corner of 1516 Mount Douglas Cross Rd., which the landowners – the Alberg family – unsuccessfully tried to develop into a 12- and 16-lot subdivision and remove from the Agricultural Land Reserve in 2011 and 2012. After two failed attempts, the cows moved in.
Now with what they feel is a stronger case for developing their property, plus support from the neighbourhood, the Albergs last week submitted another development application to Saanich planning with the hopes of eventually seeing 16 homes on the property.
“It’s basically the 16 lots that we presented before (in March 2011). The major change is a $100,000 amenity to the Gordon Head Residents’ Association,” said Don Alberg, who inherited the land with his siblings, Gordon Alberg and Florence Davis. The other difference is the Albergs now have a report from a biologist that says there is no environmentally sensitive ecosystem on the property, as originally believed by Saanich.
Alberg says that process, including getting the environmental audit approved by Saanich, took much of 2013.
“I think a lot of neighbours think the Albergs could’ve applied over the last year, but they were waiting for the environmental (audit) to be done and cleared,” said Ted Lea, a neighbour who has been acting as a liaison between the community and the Albergs. “I think the consensus is everyone wants the farm to go. It’s time to get this over with and do what’s best for the neighbourhood.”
When council first rejected the development application in 2011, a unanimous decision hinged on the fact that the 1.64-hectare property was not in line with the official community plan.
While councillors agreed that sustainable agriculture on the property was unlikely, they didn’t have a complete picture of the land’s ecology.
“For us to support the removal of land from the ALR it would have to be such a compelling argument (and be) for the greater good of our community … not the development of more houses,” Coun. Susan Brice said .
In July 2012, council grappled with conflicting municipal documents – one supported removing the land from the ALR, the other asserted the opposite.
Council voted 5-4 to clarify their position that removing the land from the ALR is not supported.
In December 2012, after neighbours learned that a poultry or cow farm was being planned for the site, they asked council to reconsider a residential subdivision. Instead, Saanich sent a request to remove the land from the ALR to the Agricultural Land Commission, but provided no opinion or input to the ALC.
Now the Albergs say they have a laundry list of neighbours who don’t want a cow farm anymore, and want to see what’s on the property changed. Stark says that given the options being presented to the neighbourhood, development is the best of two unpopular options.
“I will be happy when the attractants are removed. I would’ve been thrilled if they just left their property exactly the way it was, but that’s a moot point,” Stark said. “Do I want a 16-lot subdivision over there? No. But do I want cows and rats? No.”
There are currently 55 cows living on the property. At its peak there were upwards of 100 cattle in Gordon Head, but the Albergs have been selling the animals for meat.