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North Saanich land deal may face challenges

Dec 11 2011

The once heavily supported landswap proposal between the District of North Saanich and the owner of Sandown racetrack could face some new challenges on Monday.

North Saanich's previous council had been working on a deal to allow racetrack owner William Randall to remove 4.8 hectares of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve to be rezoned for commercial use. He would then donate the remaining 33.5 hectares to the municipality, which would be used for agriculture.

Some council members, however, say the deal could come with considerable costs to taxpayers as the property is restored for its new use.

Proponents say the deal will preserve the protected agricultural land while increasing property tax revenue to the tune of $348,000 annually. But critics say there are just too many questions about the condition of the property, including the concern about environmental contamination from an old gasoline spill, which could result in considerable cleanup costs.

Councillors Dunstan Browne and Craig Mearns both disagree with a covenant that council offered to put on the property to maintain agriculture zoning in perpetuity. They also disagree with promising to spend about $175,000 a year on agriculture expenditures for the property.

The Sandown property is currently assessed at about $6.6 million. The 4.8-hectare parcel of commercial land will be worth about $29 million, according to a business plan in chief administrative officer Rob Buchan's report.

The municipality would collect the additional $348,000 in annual tax revenue on that property, based Buchan's estimates.

The previous council had proposed spending up to half of that additional revenue on restoring the agricultural portion of the property. The municipality could then use the site for a range of purposes, including agricultural research, farmers' markets, community gardens, agricultural demonstration projects and university agricultural programs.

"About a quarter of that land is beautiful forest and people use it," Browne said. "We will have to put a fence around that now and stop them, because it's not agriculture."

Mayor Alice Finall has been a proponent of the plan throughout her first term in office and looks forward to seeing the deal go through. "This is a big decision, it's the next step," she said. "In essence, it not only preserves agricultural land, it enhances it."

North Saanich's previous council provided some attractive incentives to encourage the commission. The municipality will add a 4.8-hectare chunk of land off Littlewood Road to the Agricultural Land Reserve, so there is no loss in the total amount of land in the reserve.

The council will decide at Monday's meeting about how to proceed with a draft agreement between the city and the Agricultural Land Commission.

The commission did not insist on the annual spending for agriculture in its reason for supporting the land swap.

"We have some leeway in terms of what they will do to address conditions of the Agricultural Land Commission," Finall said. "We don't have to bind ourselves to 50 per cent, if we don't want to."

Environmentalist Vicky Husband said she will be at Monday's meeting, stressing the importance of food security and the need to have areas for young farmers to work.

Buchan suggests the council gives itself the option of spending up to 50 per cent instead of promising that kind of spending each year.

dspalding@timescolonist.com

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