Times Colonist: Woodwynn Farms breaks new ground with market

 Katherine Dedyna / Times Colonist

December 11, 2016 06:00 AM

 It has been a decade of great change for Woodwynn Farms, once the bailiwick of the millionaires behind the now-defunct Woodward department stores. And the change is far from over, as the society that operates the property is once again applying to boost the number of residents living, working and healing on the 78-hectare spread in Central Saanich. This time, the increase sought from the Agricultural Land Commission is housing to accommodate 40 formerly homeless people, up from the current seven residents.

If the application is successful, 33 more residents would arrive over the next three years, said Richard Leblanc, founder and executive director of the Creating Homefulness Society that operates Woodwynn. People once in dire circumstances have renovated the main floor of the enormous barn, built in the 1940s, into what he describes as “possibly Vancouver Island’s most beautiful farmers market.”

The market is meant to serve many purposes: community engagement, job training for residents for the hospitality industry and to offset operating costs.

And perhaps to offset neighbourhood fears about who lives there. “We have operated for over seven years without any police incidents as related to any participant activities,” Leblanc said.

Produce available features a lot of garlic, turnip and kale, given the farm got a permit to open only in late September, he said.

“We’re selling frozen chicken, some herbs and tea blends, and some really amazing infused vinegars. And pork from heritage pigs that we raised.”

The welcoming wooden door was crafted by one of the residents.

It’s the welcome by the larger community that’s been more of a question for Woodwynn, despite the “amazing show of support” from some members that includes 35,000 hours of volunteer time and major financial donations.

When Central Saanich filed a civil suit in 2014 seeking to shut down the society, private lawyers stepped up to provide free advice. “It hasn’t cost us a cent, but for the municipality it’s very expensive,” Leblanc said. Other donors enabled the purchase of $400,000 worth of trailers where most of the Woodwynn residents live.

The biggest donation of all?

Three couples, all philanthropists, donated about $4.7 million for the non-profit society to buy the farm in 2007. The property that dominates the Mount Newton Valley had been on the market for $6.9 million since the fall of 2006.

Two of those couples are local, one is not and all keep in touch, Leblanc said. The society took possession on June 1, 2009, and based its program on “the world’s most successful recovery centre” in San Patrignano, Italy, where residents usually stay more than three years.

But establishing a place on the Saanich Peninsula to help people with mental illnesses and addictions get off the street and back to the land has been “an enormous challenge,” Leblanc said.

To take things to the next level requires changes to farmland that must go before the Agricultural Land Commission with direction from the municipality.

ALC regulations prohibit local governments from allowing more than one residence per parcel of farmland unless the additional residences are necessary for farm use. Currently, there are two residences at Woodwynn — a 1980s house where Leblanc lives and a 1901 house where a staff member and two residents live.

(The origins of the farm date back to pioneer Angus MacPhail, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who built a cabin there in 1854. The Woodwards bought the farm in 1944 and sold it to John Arnaud in 1988.)

After the society applied to the ALC for housing, Central Saanich sought additional information to complete the application, which the society submitted on Nov. 18. The additional materials are now under review.

“We haven’t seen the revised application at the council table,” said Mayor Ryan Windsor.

And it is not expected to reach the agenda until the new year.

It’s up to council to make a recommendation — either rejection or support — to the commission.

The key issue is farming on farmland, said Windsor, and council needs to see how putting dozens or perhaps 100 people there at some point fits in with that. The issue is “a tough one,” he said. “At this point, I would need to see the case for 40 people.”

As mayor and as a director of the Capital Region, he hears the concerns of the community, and notes there are as many as 36 homes in proximity to Woodwynn. “With respect to the [Woodwynn] program, I’m not going to speak against people trying to help people. [But] it’s premature to say that Woodwynn is the right fit or the wrong fit.”

The fit has been a longstanding issue.

The civil claim [in abeyance] filed by the municipality in B.C. Supreme Court asked that Woodwynn be ordered to stop using the West Saanich Road property for commercial, office and institutional use, and as a recreational vehicle and mobile home park and campground.

Central Saanich wanted the court to declare the use of the barn as a store and a coffee shop violated the B.C. building code and the district building bylaw. It also sought a court order to clear all Canadian thistle on the property every year before it goes to seed.

Windsor said he is concerned about the idea of “building a housing complex on farm land,” although Leblanc said even 40 people would be housed in ATCO trailers with a view to enclosing them behind hedges.

He said the question of 100 people “has not been addressed at all.”

Leblanc said about 65 people, mostly men, have gone through the program — 45 of them successfully. The others head back to Victoria, perhaps to the streets. Residents must agree to forgo drugs and alcohol while at Woodwynn.

Leblanc estimates that the farm program can house, feed and provide programming for a participant for $16,000 a year, compared with close to the $60,000 it costs the public for people on the streets.

But less than a year after Woodwynn took over the land, local residents crammed council chambers and overflowed into the corridors when a council committee considered the therapeutic work community for the site.

“Councillors voted unanimously not to support institutional or residential zoning on the 78-hectare Woodwynn Farm on West Saanich Road,” the Times Colonist reported in February, 2008.

Given the current fentanyl crisis and the continued rise in homelessness, Leblanc said he hopes the municipality will see the contrast between the former tent city at the Victoria courthouse and the peaceful growing of food, raising of livestock and woodworking at Woodwynn.

People struggling to survive, facing an early grave, have been “completely transformed” at Woodwynn, given hope, clarity of mind, the motivation to reconnect with their families and become contributing members of society, he said.

Woodwynn is also collaborating with Vancouver-based Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in the development of an on-site farm school.

The prime fears from Central Saanich residents seem to be that crime will increase in their neighbourhoods and property values will fall, as far as Leblanc knows. “The facts don’t bear that out,” he said.

“After 7 1/2 years, there has been no crime and the real estate values in this part of Central Saanich are doing very well, thank you very much.”

View article online here

Read the application to increase the number of residents living and working on Woodwynn Farms here

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