In a surprise move this week, Saanich purchased Panama Flats, a 62-acre agricultural property on the Colquitz River floodplain. Mayor Frank Leonard told the News the $2.4 million deal will turn the land – between Carey and Interurban roads – into a “real gem for the community.”
“We’ll go through a whole planning process to determine what should be park, what should be trail, what should be habitat, what should be floodplain,” he said.
The deal, in the works since November, was struck with Island Berry Company Ltd. The company’s plan had been to grow cranberries on the site, part of which is in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
“Saanich residents are very fortunate Island Berry enabled this … asset to become part of the public land trust,” Leonard said, noting the property is valuable for environmental reasons as well as for floodplain management and recreational and agricultural use.
"It's important for municipal infrastructure that you have floodplain for capacity issues to avoid flooding elsewhere," Leonard said. "A lot of the land we consider to be part of the floodplain is private property. And they consider it property that could be actively farmed and that's a significant dispute."
He cited a lengthy process that began in 2008 when Island Berry purchased the property and began bringing in fill. Saanich sought an injunction that was unsuccessful.
"We were told if we wanted to succeed on the protection of the floodplain, we would have to go to trial," Leonard said. Instead, Saanich approached Island Berry and asked if they would sell.
Wayne Hopkins, co-owner of Island Berry, said the company feels the lands are “better served with public stewardship.”
"When we sat down and weighed all the benefits for the community that Saanich was talking about, the potential they could do with the property versus what we were doing, we just figured it was the right thing to do," he said.
Island Berry purchased the land for about $1.8 million. Hopkins said the company's put a lot of work into the site since buying it, including recently digging out the cranberry bogs.
"It's setback in relation to our agricultural plans, but we're confident another opportunity will come forward," Hopkins said.
He acknowledged some problems that arose after purchasing the property, in terms of the lands and neighbourhood mindset, that played a role in the decision to sell Panama Flats.
"If we would've known how difficult agriculture could be (in Panama Flats) we may have rethought (buying it)," Hopkins said.
Just how Saanich will develop Panama Flats has yet to be worked out. Community consultation will help determine how it should be used, Leonard says. There are still possibilities for agriculture -- including allotment gardens -- so long as it preserves the integrity of the floodplain.
The deal with Island Berry includes $910,000 cash from municipal reserves and an exchange of surplus lands.
A property owned by Saanich at Carey and Cherry roads will allow for a nine-lot subdivision, while land at Carey and Roy roads will be divided into three lots.
The municipality and council can justify the purchase because of "the uniqueness of the property for its Colquitz River and floodplain infrastructure," Leonard said.
"We have a good balance sheet that gives us flexibility that lets us take advantage of a unique opportunity like this," Leonard said.
The deal was important for Saanich to successfully moderate water flows and to reduce flooding risks in the area.
It’s estimated to cost $300,000 to restore the habitat, improve trails and manage stormwater in the flats.