Environmentalists at odds: Use CRD fund to buy wilderness land or urban plot near Jubilee?

The battle to protect 2.2 hectares of green space near Royal Jubilee Hospital has flared into a debate over what constitutes a regional park and who should pick up the tab for saving a rare parcel of natural land in the middle of a city.

Environmentalists who would normally be on the same side in any fight to preserve a piece of nature find themselves at odds on the issue — although all agree on the need for more parkland.

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The skirmish stems from Saanich’s decision last July to purchase a property at the 1800 block of Kings Road from B.C. Hydro for $5.5 million.

Saanich officials warned at the time that they needed to raise $2.75 million from other sources to offset the debt or they would have to sell off a portion of the land. Faced with that prospect, Saanich Coun. Ned Taylor asked the Capital Regional District in November to investigate ways that it could contribute up to $2 million to help save the entire property.

Among the arguments that Taylor and community activists have made are that Kings Road already serves as a regional park, since it sits at the junction of three municipalities — Saanich, Oak Bay and Victoria — and offers respite to thousands of patients from across the region who visit Royal Jubilee Hospital every year.

What alarms other environmentalists, however, is the prospect that the CRD might dip into its lauded Land Acquisition Fund to buy a portion of the Kings Road green space. They argue that the fund’s mandate is to protect rapidly vanishing wilderness areas, and that its money goes further in purchasing large tracts of forest rather than buying high-priced urban real estate.

A CRD staff report supports that assessment, noting that the Kings Road property doesn’t meet the fund’s overarching principle that “bigger natural areas are better and connected natural areas are the best.”

“The Kings Road parcel is not connected to other protected areas, is small, highly disturbed and lacks significant natural and environmental values,” the report said.

That, however, has prompted calls for the fund’s criteria to be revised to accommodate “unique” opportunities such as Kings Road within urban areas.

All of which led to a full house at a CRD board meeting this week and speeches by people on both sides of the debate.

Adam Kreek, an Olympic rowing gold medallist who, with his wife Rebecca Sterritt, has been one of the driving forces behind efforts to save the Kings Community Nature Space, delivered a passionate plea for the CRD’s help.

“I believe the CRD acquisition fund must be updated to recognize the realities of 2020,” he said.

“We live in a dense urban community that requires car-free access to nature.”

People have been fighting to save the space for decades, he added. “Let’s make it happen and let’s save it. We are the ones in this room who can save this magical space forever. We have the power.”

Vicky Husband, a member of the Order of Canada and one of B.C.’s most prominent environmentalists, agreed with Kreek on the need for more parkland.

But she argued the Kings Road property is a municipal responsibility and that there are other ways to preserve the property.

“The proposed change to open up the Land Acquisition Fund would essentially cannibalize the fund, rapidly depleting it, and withdrawing desperately needed resources away from protecting wilderness areas already under threat from logging, real estate, construction and road-building,” she said.

The issue has divided CRD directors as well — even those from Saanich, which bought the Kings Road property in the first place.

Mayor Fred Haynes told the CRD board this week that the land-acquisition fund was a “brilliant strategic move” to preserve the region’s forests.

“Twenty years ago, that made sense,” he said. But he argued “this is that moment in time to look to preserve some of those opportunities for significant downtown green space that are linked to regional assets such as the hospital.”

Saanich Coun. Susan Brice, by contrast, opposes tampering with the land acquisition fund.

“I do not go in the direction of director Haynes,” she said, noting there are national, provincial, regional and municipal parks systems.

“Areas like the Kings property — totally suitable for a municipality or a couple of municipalities to consider purchasing,” she said. “But I would not be supporting … any diminution of that mantra ‘bigger is better, connected is best.’ I think that is the underpinning of the regional parks system.”

Victoria Coun. Jeremy Loveday suggested that it might be possible to accommodate both visions by increasing the size of the fund — something that others have advocated previously.

In that way, he said, the CRD could help save the Kings Road property and “continue to save the Sooke Hills and the wilderness areas throughout the region.”

In the end, the CRD put off a debate on dipping into the fund, while it explores other “innovative” options for helping Saanich protect the Kings Road property. Details have not been released to the public.

In the meantime, CRD staff will conduct a routine review of the land acquisition strategy that will likely make only minor changes.

If the board decides it wants to dramatically alter the policy to permit the preservation of urban properties such as Kings Road, that would likely trigger a new round of consultations with the public, staff said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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