Creating Homefulness Society executive director Richard Leblanc stands in front of a door made by a recovering addict at Woodwynn Farms. (Hugo Wong/News staff)

Central Saanich’s Woodwynn Farms makes its case to stay

For the last nine months, Ryan Colwell, 25, has started every morning with yoga at 5:45 a.m. He still spends lots of time outdoors, but this time, it’s on his terms.

Colwell, a recovering heroin addict, is among four clients living at Woodwynn Farms in Central Saanich working to better their lives, but Creating Homefulness Society Executive Director Richard Leblanc says he can help more people and he is frustrated by the slow pace of change.

“People are dying and we’re sitting, buried in politics and bureaucracy, and that’s just wrong,” says Leblanc.

Leblanc has been trying for years to convert the former Woodward family farm into a rehabilitation facility based on the San Patrignano model of care, a peer-driven facility with no hard deadlines, where residents farm or do other similar activities until they feel they are ready can re-enter society. Leblanc has been trying since 2008 to bring a similar type of facility to Woodwynn.

The issue is a long-standing and complicated. The 193-acre property is designated for agricultural use by the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), which limits activities the ALC deems non-agricultural. The Creating Homefulness Society is looking to spot zone two acres to eventually house up to 96 participants as well as support staff.

Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor says that exceeds the typical amount of housing allowed on agricultural land.

“Council’s position has been and remains that the therapeutic has to be complementary to the farm and in fact assist with the primary goal of that land which is farm production,” said Windsor. “To date, it appears that Woodwynn is more concerned with therapeutic aspects and now I understand that they’re talking about speeding things along so they can help address the fentanyl and opioid overdoses.

“But, the reality is still the same. There are restrictions that are placed on that land, and it’s for agricultural use. And the community has always been strong-minded on that one in the past, and that is they would like to see the agricultural component of the land be at the forefront of any application whether it’s Woodwynn or anyone else.”

Windsor said that in a recent application, Leblanc did not provide enough evidence to council that the therapeutic program at Woodwynn involved a considerable amount of farming. He said Leblanc claimed he had some data, but “they certainly didn’t present it to me in a way that made a lot of sense.”

Most of the property is currently used to grow hay, but Leblanc said he wants to convert those fields to grow food crops instead and “far more livestock” like cows, chickens and pigs.

Despite Council’s concerns, Windsor said Central Saanich has forwarded Leblanc’s application to the Agricultural Land Commission. If the ALC decides that Leblanc’s application fits within allowable use guidelines, Council will begin a public consultation process before finally approving or denying the application. The ALC has not yet made a decision.

Leblanc said the delays are due to concerns about crime or decreasing home values, which he says have not materialized.

“In eight years we’ve had the police here twice, dealing with issues with our participants. Typical shelters or tent cities police are there 24/7. Two incidents in eight-plus years. Real estate values are doing very well in the neighbourhood. And I think local mayor and council are beginning to recognize that.”

In previous years, Leblanc said he has had a strained relationship with Central Saanich council and his neighbours, particularly when the facility first opened, but he said that’s beginning to improve.

Windsor said that Leblanc’s characterization is inaccurate.

“I think there’s a lot of perception of strain. We’ve been very fair to the application. When it comes forward, we ask questions. We hope that the answers give us some detail we’re looking for when making a decision and I would say that that’s the nature of the relationship.”

Leblanc appreciates the support he has received in the past from donors, but said his supporters need to be more vocal.

“For them to sit down and pen their support to government officials is important and I don’t think people understand the value of their voices.”

For now, up to 10 recovering addicts can stay at Woodwynn. They detox at Royal Jubilee Hospital, and then if they choose, they go to Woodwynn to begin the long road to recovery.

Colwell grew up in Surrey, and he said he had a happy childhood. But when he was 17, his father died, and that’s when he began to unravel. He was homeless, bouncing between shelters, hostels and the streets of Victoria. In a quiet voice, the tall and lanky man described entering both public and private rehab facilities, saying they were all short-term solutions. He would always revert back to using drugs.

“My life was in shambles pretty much. This was the only place I could find that would help me.”

Eventually, he learned about Woodwynn from a friend who taught at Camosun College.

“I liked that it wasn’t faith-based or 12-step based, and also liked that it was such a long commitment and a full-time commitment.”

He said he committed to stay for one year, but he does not know exactly when he wants to leave.

“You don’t have to meet certain dates. No ‘this is supposed to happen at six months, this is supposed to happen at nine months.’ It’s just sort of individualized, which is good otherwise I could feel like I just white-knuckle it ‘til that day and just focus on that day. So I just sort of stay in the moment. It could be two years. I don’t know. Whenever I’m ready I guess.”

Colwell was about to have lunch, which would likely be soup and a sandwich. He said residents have two or three vegetarian nights every week, with meat on the other days. Food is locally sourced, with most of it coming from Woodwynn.

“It’s better than I’ve ever eaten, pretty much. It definitely. It was a process to get used to because I’ve eaten a lot of junk food and candy my whole life so it took some getting used to but it’s definitely part of why I feel so good for sure.”

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