North Saanich council is set for a final vote on funding $125,000 per year until 2026 to the operator of the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture following a narrow endorsement of the plan by committee of the whole on Monday (March 13).
The recommendation to council, endorsed by the committee by a 4-3 vote after much debate during a special meeting, came after representatives from the Circular Farm and Food Society, which operates the centre, presented on how the past year went, what they are looking to do in the future, and made a request to both extend their lease of the Sandown Agricultural Lands owned by the district, and to secure long-term funding from the district.
The centre is currently three years into a 10-year operating lease agreement with the district to operate on the 83-acre plot of land. The centre’s broad goals include restoring the farmland, wetland and forest on the property – which has been significantly damaged by invasive plant and animal species, and after years of use as a racetrack – fostering new farmers and growers in the region.
Steve Duck, the centre’s outgoing manager of business operations, told the committee work has been progressing since the centre started in 2020, but there were more challenges with the property than was originally thought.
Succeeding in their goals would require more time and secure funding in the long-term, hence his three-part ask of the district to include an annual line item in the budget equal to $125,000 and adjusted for inflation to fund the centre’s basic operations, provide a new 15-year lease with multiple 15-year renewable periods for the land, and to work with the centre to develop, fund and implement a multi-year drainage, roads, irrigation, and soil remediation plan.
The $125,000 ask for 2023 has already been partially fulfilled after the previous council approved an additional $75,000 in funding to the centre for this year in March of 2022, which was approved unanimously on the basis of that council feeling the centre had shown good progress on its goals to that point.
Despite that previous support from council and all but one speaker during the public engagement period of Monday’s meeting being strongly in favour of granting all three requests, the committee’s deliberation focused on concerns little progress seemed to have been made on the centre’s goals over the past three years for the funds the district has already provided annually.
In 2022, those contributions were $125,000, just under half of the centre’s total revenues of $267,350. Those revenues were $103,008 above their expenditures of $164,342. Past and future funding provided by the district to the centre comes from the district’s Agricultural Reserve Fund, which receives around $129,000 each year from commercial tax revenue generated on property adjacent to the Sandown lands.
Concerns were also raised around the ask for a new, longer-term lease of the lands, both over the lack of progress and on whether it was right for the district to provide such exclusive use of prominent land to one organization for such a long period of time.
After also debating whether it would be more appropriate for a decision to be made at a later date to allow for more internal discussion between committee and staff, a motion was made to recommend council only approve the funding part of the ask, with modifications limiting the support until the end of the current council term in 2026 and not tying it to inflation.
The final decision on whether to approve the COW recommendation on funding will be made by council at a later date.
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