Watkiss Way fir trees to be logged within week, Saanich mayor says

All 4,900 trees on a private Watkiss Way property are being logged so fast they should be down “in about a week’s time,” Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell said Monday.

“They’re being cut down at a rate of one every two to three minutes,” Atwell said after speaking with landowner Allen Vandekerkhove, who he said had no interest in stopping the cut.

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Atwell said earlier that he hoped Vandekerkhove would cease logging long enough to have a conversation about other options for the 24 acres at issue on the 30-acre site, near Victoria General Hospital. Vandekerkhove bought the property two years ago.

“He’s interested in cutting the rest of the trees down and then converting the land to hay production. … He said he’s committed,” Atwell said.

The property is in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and logging the second-growth Douglas firs and cedars to grow hay is a permitted use.

Vandekerkhove said it will likely take a year after the trees are gone to cultivate the soil before hay can be planted.

As for the look of the property, “it’s like we’ve moved to a different planet,” said the philanthropist and farmer, who lives nearby. “That’s not a plus or a minus. It is what it is.”

Atwell finds the “significant tree loss for Saanich” to be “unfortunate. … And I think this is a teachable moment for the district, that it will have to think ahead with private landowners to generate options for them, for the benefit of the community.”

Given that Vandekerkhove first applied to cut down the 4,900 trees more than a year ago, Atwell said he would have liked council to have considered the large number involved before the second permit was issued by Saanich staff on Oct. 15. By Nov. 20, about 450 trees had come down.

Atwell, who drove by Watkiss Way a couple of nights ago, said it’s a shock to see land where fir trees have dominated for decades fenced off and open. The sight is “a little bit heartbreaking,” he said.

Vandekerkhove, who owns adjacent land, bought the Watkiss property for $1.2 million after it had been for sale for five years.

Saanich considered the site for a park in 2013 but the proposal did not go forward.

Before deciding to log the land, Vandekerhove sought consideration by Saanich this year for a proposal for a sewage treatment plant on the site that would have been hidden by trees.

The proposal was rejected 5-4 by Saanich council, with some council members objecting to agricultural land being used for such a purpose. “And the trees came down anyway, when the sewage site would have saved half the trees,” Atwell said.

Atwell said council did not take the issue seriously. He took the proposal back to council in the summer, but a motion to send it to the Capital Regional District for consideration lost in a tie vote.

He said Monday he wished he had known more of the background of the property, including what was discussed at Saanich council closed-door meetings before he was elected in November 2014.

“None of that was shared with me. … There are so many options here that didn’t get put into a document to have us weigh in on,” he said.

Even if the CRD had turned down the site for sewage, it would have opened the door to further discussion about options for the property, Atwell said.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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