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Friends of Pioneer Park secure grant for legal support

NANAIMO – Environmental lawyer hired to help guide community group sift through complex land issue.

A community group will be able to continue its fight to save Pioneer Forest in the city’s north end after being approved for a legal grant.

Friends of Pioneer Forest was formally created on July 8, complete with a constitution, bylaws and board of directors. It formed in response to a recent attempt by the City of Nanaimo and Nanaimo school district to re-designate Pioneer Forest, located at May Bennett Pioneer Park, from parks and open space to neighbourhood.

Neighbourhood designation could allow for residential development of the 3.2-hectare tract of forest in the city’s heavily developed north end.

That level of organization allowed Friends of Pioneer Forest to look to the West Coast Environmental Law’s Environmental Dispute Fund for the grant, which will enable it to retain the services of Patrick Canning, an environmental lawyer based in Tofino.

The Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund provided $3,644 to assist with legal aid.

“It’s quite complex,” said Dominic Jones, spokesman for Friends of Pioneer Park. “But the brunt of it is we’re saying it is a park and was always required to be a park. The city and school district are saying they’ve got information that says otherwise.”

Jones said the group’s next step is to understand from Canning what the community’s options are going forward and what legal strategy it can pursue – with the hope it can be something in conjunction with the city and school district.

Canning said he believes the land was never intended to be used for private gain or as residential housing.

“Now we can do the work to make sure it stays the way it was intended for the benefit of the people of Nanaimo,” said Canning, in a release.

In 1984, the province sold all of May Bennett Pioneer Park to the city for $1 under the condition the property be used for public recreation.

In 1997 the city sold Pioneer Forest to the school district for $800,000. The school district considered building an elementary school on the site, but later deemed it unnecessary. When the property was transferred, the Ministry of the Environment cancelled the Crown grant on the property to allow for recreational opportunities.

Jones said Friends of Pioneer Forest is working to provide a solution for all parties involved, though he admitted that if it does turn into a legal showdown that more funding would need to be sought.

The Environmental Dispute Fund is the only source of environmental legal aid in B.C. for individuals and community groups. It funds the cost of environmental lawyers and scientific experts and has granted more than $4 million to communities across B.C., supporting more than 500 environmental cases since 1989.