Clay court tennis opponents decry loss of parkland

Saanich hosts meeting on tennis court proposal, which draws huge crowd and plenty of opinions

Saanich has ignored its own policies and procedures when it comes to the proposed clay courts at Cedar Hill park, says a former Saanich councillor.

Carol Pickup, who sat on council for 14 years, said the process to build the clay courts behind the Cedar Hill Recreation Centre shouldn’t be before council because staff haven’t consulted with the public.

“From the moment parks was approached by the proponents of the clay courts, this should have triggered the parks policy that calls for the development of a park concept plan,” she said Thursday night at a special committee of the whole meeting, which drew upwards of 300 people.

In February 1990, the council of the day made a policy change after a developer was allowed to mow down nearly 100 trees at Arbutus Cove Park, according to a Saanich News article from Feb. 28, 1990.

In response, council approved a policy that requires a concept plan be developed for all park developments and improvements, and Saanich-run community meetings will be held prior to a proposal being reviewed by council.

“I would recommend to Saanich council that they restart a comprehensive public process to seriously examine the future of Cedar Hill park, and direct Saanich parks to also complete an in-depth (site assessment) before any approvals are given for any development proposal.”

John Miller, with the Cedar Hill Clay Court Tennis Society, said he learned a lot about the importance of talking with the community due to the University of Victoria’s two failed attempts in 2010 to build a new sports facility on campus.

“Everything I heard was about the proponents not following the process. And so that’s why in the last two years we’ve been mindful of doing everything possible to make sure we’ve followed the process, make sure people are informed,” he said.

“Two years is a lot of time to go through, but every step of the way we were mindful that engaging the community was important to (Saanich council). And while engaging the community, it allowed us to modify and change our plan and make it better.”

Saanich Coun. Vicki Sanders points to the turnout to the meeting as proof that that’s not the case. While the full room appeared to be an equal mix of proponents and opponents, council mostly heard from residents in opposition to the plan.

“We have a policy,” she said, referring to the one Pickup mentioned. “Why didn’t we call the public meeting? We haven’t followed policy. Had that happened, we’d be in a far different place today.”

Peter Haddon, one of a handful of Saanich residents behind, impressed upon council that the community shouldn’t lose green space to a single-use facility.

“We need to develop a more community-centred vision for the (park),” he said. “Surely a special interest cannot take from our park. (They) are not entitled to make private that which is shared by the entire community.”

Miller qualifies that the club is not private, per say. While there will be annual membership fees, the CHCCTS will donate 1,500 hours of court time to Saanich every year to distribute for public programming or recreation opportunities.

A resident living two blocks from the park, on Oakmount Road, argued that building the tennis facility would turn most of Cedar Hill Park into a “user-pay zone, except for the pencil-thin walking trail.”

Pickup and Haddon’s wife, Susan, both read a quote from Mayor Frank Leonard published in the News in October, related to the opportunities available at Panama Flats: “I have a lot of confidence that if you get input from a lot of voices that ultimately good ideas will prevail over bad ideas.”

“This area deserves the same treatment (as Panama Flats). The public has the right to be full participants in planning for (this park’s) future,” Susan said.

“Ask yourselves a very important question,” Pickup said to council. “What is the best use of this public property to provide for the unmet needs for the greatest number of community members?”

The CHCCTS proposes to build eight clay tennis courts on the area behind the recreation centre that currently houses two baseball diamonds.

The project is estimated to cost $1.3 million. The tennis society is seeking a $100,000 grant an a $250,000 interest-free loan from Saanich for the project.

Leonard cut the meeting short at 10:30 p.m. and said there was no reason to make a hasty decision or to have residents sit and wait for everyone to get a chance to speak. The meeting will continue, allowing for more public input, on Jan. 23 at Garth Homer Centre.

Miller says he’s looking forward to the next meeting, and getting an opportunity to respond to public concerns.

“No matter what side of the issue you’re on, it’s important to listen.”

Special Olympics softball

Jeff Martin and his fellow Victoria Special Olympic softball players call the two ball diamonds at Cedar Hill Park their home field.

Every spring some 40 athletes of varying abilities train and play on the site that’s currently proposed to be overtaken by eight clay tennis courts.

“Over the time we have used the softball program we’ve had several athletes qualify for higher level competition,” said Martin, who’ll compete in softball at the 2014 Special Olympics in Vancouver. “Losing the fields would make it difficult for us. In short, Special Olympics Victoria may have to suspend or eliminate a softball program due to not funding replacement fields.”

Chantal Brodeur, president of Victoria Special Olympics, says those diamonds are centrally located and on transit routes, have nearby are indoor washroom facilities, are well maintained, and recreation staff are close in the event of an emergency.

“Two years ago Saanich recreation moved us to Braefoot Park for approximately a month. We immediately felt the impact because of the isolation, and because there’s only one diamond. With 40-plus athletes, we need two,” Brodeur said. “What’s at stake from moving us … is the safety of our athletes and not enough ball diamonds.”

Grants and loans

One of the issues many opponents spoke to is the clay court society’s request from Saanich for a $100,000 grant and a $250,000 interest-free loan.

“I don’t want tax dollars going to build or bail out this project,” said Art Beck, one of the speakers at Thursday’s meeting.

Leonard says this sort of financial request is identical to other recreation groups Saanich has issued loans and grants to in years past.

Since 2005, Saanich made a similar financial contribution to four different soccer groups to upgrade fields at Hampton, Tyndall, Lochside and Braefoot parks. Saanich also provided a $100,000 grant to upgrade Layritz Park, but no loan was needed.

“We’ll still judge (the tennis society’s request) separately and on its own merit, but it’s not out of the range of expectations for sports groups to ask for it,” Leonard said.

He said the $100,000 grant is essentially a good-faith gesture from Saanich to sports groups for investing in and maintaining a recreational asset in the municipality.

Not ball diamonds or tennis courts

Two Saanich residents – Ken Campbell and Andy Ruszel – brought their own presentations to council, with detailed drawings suggesting alternative options for the land.

Campbell suggested a focus on the arts, tying the space in to the Arts Centre at Cedar Hill by creating an “Art in the Park” event, a sculpture garden and carving sheds.

Ruszel suggested a more comprehensive plan that included a children’s playground, community garden, an accessible walking trail, and green space for outdoor arts expansion.

Some speakers suggested that if Saanich is adamant that changes can be made to the park, it should be restored to its natural state as a Bowker Creek wetland.

“Why must everything on this green earth justify its existence only in terms of its utility to us?” asked Oakmount Road resident Jana Kalina.