Don Alberg stands at the rear of the rumbling livestock trailer, backed into the entrance of a new large pen. The 67-year-old Qualicum Beach resident opens the gate, giving the cattle a first look at their new home: residential Gordon Head.
As the 23 bovine tenants graze about the land, the familiar sounds and rank odour of a cow farm quickly fill the air surrounding the agricultural property, wedged in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood.
“I, along with my brother and sister, are very apologetic to the neighbours. We were forced into this feedlot,” Alberg says. “(I know) feedlots don’t fit in here.”
The siblings own 1516 Mount Douglas Cross Rd., a 1.64-hectare parcel that’s zoned for one house. But it’s also farmland, protected in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The Gordon Head land has effectively become an extension of Alberg’s Qualicum Beach farm, as these new cows took residence in Saanich to make way for growing calves. He expects to eventually cycle cows in and out of the feedlot as they are sold off for meat.
Alberg says raising cows in Saanich isn’t ideal, but the project will extract some profit from the land after the family was twice denied requests to subdivide the land for housing.
In March 2011 the Albergs went before Saanich council with a plan to develop the property into 16 residential lots and remove it from the ALR. Council rejected the plan. In July 2012, the Albergs scaled back their plans, opting for a 12 lots. But council rejected their plans once again.
“For us to support the removal of land from the ALR it would have to be such a compelling argument (and be) for the greater good of our community … not the development of more houses,” Coun. Susan Brice said in 2011, summing up council’s reasoning for rejection.
Perhaps a compelling argument is now the Albergs, having been rejected multiple times at the staff and council levels, are using their property as a farm, even though it’s surrounded by homes.
“I don’t think we’ve been treated fairly,” Alberg says. He and his siblings – Gordon Alberg and Florence Davis – have spent nearly $150,000 on development plans, agrologist reports and now prepping the land for a cattle operation.
Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard says his understanding is the siblings still want to develop the property.
“I don’t know how (a cattle feedlot) gets them closer to the outcome they want,” Leonard says. “My sense is that they wish to use it as a bully tactic.”
John Alexander, the Albergs’ lawyer, doesn’t see it that way.
“This is a piece of land that’s Land Reserve land that has a potentially productive use. The Albergs spent a lot of money historically to change the use and haven’t been particularly successful (dealing with Saanich), so they’re going to put it to the uses that are permitted,” Alexander said.
The Albergs say they’re just frustrated. While they know the ball is in their court to submit another development application, they don’t want to invest more time and money, only to be potentially rejected again.
“Right now, though, we have no intentions of putting an plans forward to Saanich. We’ll let them know if that changes,” Alberg says.
Best case scenario, he says, could be if council revisits its March 2011 decision regarding the original 16-lot plan. Leonard says the property owners need to be the ones to take the next steps.
Until the stalemate is dealt with, Alberg says more pens and more cattle will be put on the property. “We need some revenue from this property,” he says.
The cows were moved to their new home Tuesday, marking the first time in nearly a decade that livestock has lived in Gordon Head.
The Alberg property was formerly owned by Vera Alberg, the siblings’ mother, since 1945, who kept five black Angus cows on the land until she turned 100 in 2004.
“The birth of new calves at ‘Vera’s place’ each spring has become a special neighbourhood event. Not many residential areas can boast such a delight,” wrote Saanich News history columnist Valerie Green in a June 1994 article. “Her small cattle business is her pride and joy.”
As homes sprung up around the property, and most area farmland was taken out of the ALR decades ago, the Alberg family land has become an anomaly.
“We had a great time when we were kids here, but it’s not like it used to be,” Alberg says in view of residential homes backing onto his cow pasture. “The reasonable decision is for this to come out of the ALR. Farming is not conducive to single-family neighbourhoods.”