A battle of wills

By Judith Lavoie, September 2014

Will Woodwynn Farm become an election issue in Central Saanich?

Parked in a meadow at Woodwynn Farm in Central Saanich are a dozen recreational vehicles donated by individuals who want to help ease Greater Victoria’s homelessness problem. Each RV could house at least two people, but, in an effort to conform to Central Saanich bylaws, only six of 30 available beds at the picturesque West Saanich Road farm are occupied.

Plans for a therapeutic community, housing 96 former street people, seem as distant today as when the Creating Homefulness Society bought the property five years ago. Executive Director Richard Leblanc, who wants to model Woodwynn on a successful rehabilitation centre at San Patrignano, Italy, says, “It’s a far cry from capacity. It was designed for a slow build-up and we should have been at about 48 by now. A lot of people on the street are not getting help.” 

There has been a five-year battle of wills between the Creating Homefulness Society and municipal authorities over the housing and operations of the 78-hectare farm. Central Saanich council has steadfastly refused to grant the society permits allowing expansion, and the society’s 2012 application to the Agricultural Land Commission to rezone one hectare for housing was rejected after it was opposed by council.

The latest salvo from Central Saanich came just as the garlic was being harvested in July: a BC Supreme Court notice of civil claim asking the court to issue an order prohibiting the property from being used for any commercial, office and institutional purposes or as an RV park and campground. The municipality also wants a declaration from the court that commercial operations (a small store and coffee shop) violate building codes and bylaws and run contrary to Agricultural Land Reserve regulations. As a kicker, the district wants a court order forcing Woodwynn to get rid of all thistles on the property each year before the weeds go to seed.

“They are spending tax dollars on keeping the homeless out of their community,” Leblanc said with exasperation, accusing Central Saanich of discrimination. “We are bringing one of the best solutions in the world to one of the region’s biggest problems and they are complaining about thistles—really.”

However, the legal challenge is already affecting donors and, even with half a dozen pro bono lawyers and the Pivot Legal Society supporting the group, there are likely to be costs. “It’s our understanding that our opponents seem to be working in concert with the municipality. If they withhold permits, it makes it difficult to raise money and they are hoping we will die a slow and painful death,” Leblanc said.

The stalemate means that much of the farm work has fallen to volunteers, instead of the expected workforce of clients, giving rise to complaints from some opponents about weeds and poor farming standards.

For his part, Leblanc has become a master at skirting or ignoring rules, bylaws and violation tickets and has developed a reputation for stubbornly adhering to his plan.

Acting Mayor Alicia Cormier said municipal staff have explained the process to Leblanc many times and people are mistaken if they confuse the issue of homelessness with Woodwynn’s refusal to follow a process.

Cormier said her personal preference would be to welcome input from anyone providing solutions to homelessness and lack of affordable housing. “But, it should be done within our bylaws and existing process,” she emphasized, noting that, during her 18 months on council, there have been no applications from Woodwynn.

Leblanc retorted that no applications have been made recently because Central Saanich councillors have made it clear there is no political will to find a solution. “It would cost us time and money to submit something that’s going to be turned down,” said Leblanc, adding that the group is still waiting for a reply to a letter sent more than 18 months ago asking for advice on spot zoning. 

Neither side is blameless in the impasse. Central Saanich council set the tone at a meeting more than four years ago when members of the Creating Homefulness Society presented information on the project and were left in no doubt that submitting an application would be pointless. Councillors made it plain they were not interested in attempting to make the project fit with bylaws, and flames were fanned by a vocal group of residents who believed homeless people belonged Downtown “where services could be provided” or who were alarmed that historic farmland could be lost.

Leblanc, for his part, could be accused of goading council by publicly pitching tents or running a farm market in a building deemed unsafe for failing to meet building codes (despite renovations). He readily admits he does not have required permits, but insists no one is ever in danger on the farm. Kathleen Busch, director of community development for Woodwynn, has described “almost weekly” visits from bylaw officers “for petty issues” and the legal suit as a form of harassment aimed at closing Woodwynn down. 

Frustrated municipal staff say they have explained processes, but the required paperwork fails to materialize; councillors say they are being forced to take legal action to maintain credibility in the municipality’s bylaw enforcement.

Leblanc is hoping Woodwynn will be a major issue during November’s municipal election campaign. He believes only a small minority of Central Saanich residents oppose the therapeutic farm. He points to donations, which enable the farm to pay its bills, of about $16,000 a month, and 30,000 hours of volunteer work annually, as examples of wide support. 

Among those regularly donating goods to Woodwynn is Ian MacDonald of Carnivore Meats in Brentwood Bay. “I know it has been somewhat controversial in the neighbourhood, but they need help. The people running it are awesome. You can tell they are genuinely big-hearted,” MacDonald said.

A review of 600 letters to council, conducted by a University of Victoria practicum student working for Creating Homefulness, showed 500 in favour and only 100 against the project. One of the latter, a letter to council from resident William Willbond, accuses Woodwynn “inmates” of petty theft and excess noise and speculates that the history of breaking ALR rules and municipal regulations could indicate a long term ploy to turn the farm into high-density housing.

Leblanc dismisses such accusations and said police have been called to the farm only five times over the years and all have been because of an opponent yelling at staff or refusing to leave the premises.

Adam Olsen, interim leader of the BC Green Party and a former Central Saanich councillor, believes the key to the impasse is to ensure that Woodwynn is fully operational as a farm and to then tie requests to council or the Agricultural Land Commission to agricultural components. “If in fact the farm is operating at a rate that requires that amount of housing on an ongoing basis, the municipality and ALC would probably look at that,” he said.

But this results in a type of Catch-22 scenario. ALR regulations stipulate any housing “must be necessary for farm use” and what’s seen as necessary is influenced by what the local authority advises the ALR. For Woodwynn to carry out its farming and therapeutic mission, it requires more housing than is normally necessary to farm a 78-hectare property. The standard box set out by the regulations may never allow for a therapeutic farm on ALR land—especially if a municipality won’t get behind the project. 

Watching the saga from the outside are regional service providers who hope that, sooner or later, some of the region’s approximately 1700 people who used emergency shelters last year will be given the Woodwynn option. Andrew Wynn-Williams, Coalition to End Homelessness executive director, believes the farm could help address the common problem of integrating former street people into society. “When someone is housed, how do you then make them more independent? Woodwynn is one way of tackling that,” he said.

The debate, he noted, is a reminder that homelessness is a regional issue, although people congregate in downtown Victoria in order to access services. Wynn-Williams recently made presentations or held talks with mayors or councils of all Capital Regional District municipalities. Local governments have a role to play in zoning land appropriately, supporting more affordable housing, and combatting NIMBY-ism, said Wynn-Williams, who would not comment on the reaction he received from Central Saanich.

This summer the Creating Homefulness Society was dealt another blow. For five years Leblanc has been Woodwynn’s face and ambassador, but, last month, he was forced to take a short sabbatical to cope with the accidental drowning death of his 28-year old daughter. The loss has been devastating. “Shocked is such a small word,” he said quietly.

Kathleen Busch, Woodwynn director of community development, in a message to supporters, is asking for help while Leblanc is on leave. Supporters can volunteer time, buy some of the 7000 bales of hay waiting for a good home or write to Central Saanich council asking for site specific zoning, she suggested.

Another option is to contribute to a fund “sending Richard to San Patrignano for a sabbatical to learn, grow and heal in the place Woodwynn is modelled after.”

Despite his personal crisis, Leblanc’s quest for a therapeutic community at Woodwynn remains his priority. “I have to spend some time getting myself into a space of being able to do it,” he admitted.

For now, the Woodwynn RVs will continue to sit empty while supporters wonder whether November’s municipal election could bring a change of heart.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. She has been reporting on the Woodwynn Farm project since its inception. Twitter @LavoieJudith