Large gatherings. Arrests by local police. Presentations and interruptions at council.
So reads the list of recent events related to the cutting of trees on a 3.17-acre North Saanich property located in the 11000-block of Rosborough Road, a quiet side-road near Deep Cove Elementary School. Its owner, who has failed to return several calls from Black Press, has cut down an unknown number of trees on the property late last month.
The property lies entirely in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) with a zoning of rural-agricultural and Kim Grout, chief executive officer of the Agricultural Land Commission, told Black Press in early fall that nothing in the legislation governing the ALR prevents the removal of trees as part of agricultural use.
The property owner had signed an affidavit in early July to verify that his purpose for cutting or removing trees is of an agricultural nature, according to North Saanich staff. As such, he had legal permission to remove trees from the property without any permits from North Saanich.
Should he wish to build on the property, he will need to obtain the necessary permits to comply with building and zoning bylaws, staff added. It is not clear what type of agriculture the owner is pursuing.
According to North Saanich Mayor Peter Jones, the owner plans to build a riding ring, along with a residence.
The issue first emerged in late summer when 100 or so residents had signed a petition asking the new owner of the property to retain as much of the standing forest as possible. Locals also launched efforts to purchase the property from the owner and engage him, but efforts ultimately failed.
These efforts also included appeals from environmental activist Paul Chiyokten Wagner, who describes himself an “Indigenous titleholder” to “unceded and unsurrendered WSANEC territory.”
According to an account by the First Unitarian Church of Victoria, “50 people from the neighbourhood, local WSANEC matriarchs and some Fairy creek alumni” gathered at the location on Nov. 16 on to hear Wagner “share ceremony and teachings about the public’s collective responsibilities to WSANEC lands.”
According to the account, the group invited the owner but he declined to participate.
Wagner also spoke to North Saanich council about that property on Nov. 21, two days after he said Sidney/North Saanich RCMP had “illegally arrested” him for trying to protect trees from being cut down after he and a friend had chained themselves with bike locks to trees.
Wagner said police treated him and his friend violently, adding that he never had experienced such treatment and that his friend feared for his life.
A person on Dec. 5 interrupted a presentation of Staff Sgt. Wayne Conley before North Saanich council, arguing that police had mistreated Wagner, with the mayor then declaring a recess.
Cpl. Andres Sanchez told Black Press that police made “several arrests” after having responded to the property on several dates, including Nov. 19, 21 and 28, but did not release any details citing pending court cases.
“He (the property owner) is trying to build a residence legally and he is working on his property and there are individuals who interferred with the cutting down of trees on that property on several occasions,” said Sanchez. “There are currently criminal charges that have been forwarded against several individuals.”
Sanchez said police arrested one person without process, while the other was arrested with charges pending.
“All I can say is that individuals trespassed and committed mischief on a privately-owned property and that the individual who owns that property was within his legal right to develop the property and had taken all the legal steps to ensure that he was permitted to do that,” he said.
He added later that police will always assist if someone is interferring with the lawful enjoyment of their own personal, purchased property.
Jones told Black Press that individuals should leave properties when police them to do so.
“Within reason, peaceful demonstration should be allowed,” he said. “It’s part of our democracy. But when police get involved, they should be listened to and I will stand by what police have done. ”
When asked about tactics, local environmentalist Bobby Arbess, who has been to the site, said protesters were not trying to engage in civil disobdience.
“The tactics was try to arrange a land acquisition that would bring the property under a conservation convenant,” said Arbess.
But the owner, he added, was not serious in making unreasonable demands and negotiated in bad faith.
“The only reason why there were arrests on (Nov. 19) is because the landowner gave until after the weekend for people to come up with an offer and he was in there the very next day,” said Arbass.
He had earlier rejected comparisons to the protests with Fairy Creek in arguing that any forms of civil disobedience arond a small private property would have been over in a short time.
“The fact there might have been two or three individuals from Fairy Creek, who went up there to support Chiyokten to defend his land, is really immaterial and it’s the kind of sensationalized reporting that is just missing the point here, which is to dig into the deeper structural reason why something like this can even happen in the first place,” he said.
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