Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes supports the community’s call for the Panama Flats wetland to be preserved as a multi-use park rather than farmland.
On Jan. 10, Saanich council was set to receive a staff report outlining the future of the Panama Flats – a parcel of land between Carey and Interurban roads – and efforts to add it to a regional farmland trust and Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
However, the Residents’ Association of Strawberry Vale, Marigold and Glanford (RASVMG) wrote in requesting the item be postponed to give residents enough time to weigh-in. Council pushed the matter to Feb. 22.
Hollis Hodson, president of the RASVMG, said when Saanich bought 62-acre Panama Flats property in 2011 for $2.4-million, the goal was to preserve the land for floodplain management as well as for recreational and agricultural uses.
In 2014, the previous council endorsed a concept plan but the land has sat vacant.
In that time, animals and native plants have returned to what is now Saanich’s largest wetland, Hodson said, adding that farming is no longer an appropriate option because it would mean reversing the ecological restoration and taking away recreation space.
There has also been no interest from the farming community as the land as its unsuitable for agriculture, she said. Before Saanich took ownership, Island Berry attempted to farm cranberries on the property but found it too expensive.
“Nature has demonstrated to us that it can be a wonderful sanctuary and we need to focus on that,” Hodson said.
Haynes agrees. On Feb. 22, he plans to request a new assessment of the wetland and that a nature trust be established to protect it from development.
He admitted that while he’d initially advocated for Panama Flats to be farmed, he’s realized its ecological and recreational value. Now, he hopes the rest of council will agree and consider other solutions for food security.
The Capital Regional District has been working to develop a farmland trust as part of the implementation of the Regional Food and Agriculture Strategy. As the largest landholder in the region, Saanich would donate lands while other municipalities would cover costs, Haynes said.
One could argue that any land can be restored for farming and while the sheer size of the Panama Flats makes it seem like a viable option, the costs would outweigh the benefits and the thriving wetland would be lost, Haynes said.
In the time the property has been left fallow, the biodiversity has returned at no cost to the district and residents enjoy walking, birdwatching and, when it’s cold enough, skating in the area, Haynes said. “Why would we try to reverse that?”