Group forms to protect Pioneer Park

NANAIMO – Meeting today (July 14) will formalize executive,fundraise to hire environmental lawyer.

Vanessa Goodall cuts branches off a pine tree during a volunteer permaculture work party at Pioneer Park last fall.

Vanessa Goodall cuts branches off a pine tree during a volunteer permaculture work party at Pioneer Park last fall.

A group of north end residents has formalized efforts to save a small, triangular piece of urban forest.

Friends of Pioneer Forest was officially formed Sunday with nine founding directors, who approved the constitution and bylaws of the new organization.

Spokesman Dominic Jones said the group felt its concerns regarding the future of the property weren’t being properly considered. By creating a formal organization, Friends of Pioneer Forest hopes to access funding to hire an environmental lawyer while bringing people together around a common cause.

“Our single objective is to find a way to preserve Pioneer Forest as a park in perpetuity and we’ll be looking at various ways to do that while working with the city, the school board and the province,” said Jones, adding that so far none of those organizations have provided much co-operation in communicating.

“We’ve pursued legal advice because this issue is extremely complicated.”

Pioneer Forest, located at May Bennett Pioneer Park, is a 3.2-hectare tract of forest in the city’s heavily developed north end. The park was recently designated as a municipal off-leash dog area and is also used extensively for exercise and recreation.

“It’s extremely popular with seniors who want to walk a forest trail because it’s flat and accessible,” said Lynn Kropinak, a Friends of Pioneer Forest director.

The group fears bulldozers could be moving in because Nanaimo school district, which owns the land, has proposed changing its current parks and open spaces designation to neighbourhood.

If that change goes through, the district or another owner could apply to rezone the land to include development.

“That’s the biggest uncertainty at this point,” said Jones.

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

In 1996, the city subdivided the land into two parcels – currently the sports fields and skateboard park and the forest – with the Crown grant still intact.

In 1997, the city transferred Pioneer Forest to the school board for $800,000, and the Minister of Environment of the day cancelled the Crown grant on the forest portion to allow for educational opportunities. Building an elementary school on the site was considered, but later deemed unnecessary due to declining enrollment.

When the city introduced Bylaw 4500 last year, a sweeping new zoning bylaw, Pioneer Forest was one of a few properties in Nanaimo overlooked to have its zoning reconsidered.

“It’s somewhat convoluted at the moment,” said Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan. “We’re in the process of trying to figure it all out. Back when the city sold the land to the school board, the zoning should have changed because you can’t sell off parkland. So now it’s school board property and is zoned parkland, and we can’t designate property as parkland if it isn’t ours, so there is a catch-22 thing.”

The school board has made no indication what it intends for the property, but Friends of Pioneer Forest isn’t taking any chances.

On Saturday (July 14), Friends of Pioneer Forest invites the public to an open house at 3 p.m. at the rugby club house at Dover and Dickinson roads to formalize the formation of the organization and raise money to make a contribution to the Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund as part of an application to West Coast Environmental Law.

The event includes an interpretive walk through the forest at 3:10 p.m., a general meeting and a potluck dinner at 5 p.m.

Jones said with Woodgrove Mall, the Island’s largest shopping centre, just around the corner, the designation of Dover Road as corridor which will attract more businesses and residents to the area, and an already densely populated neighbourhood, parkland will be more important than ever.

“We’re going to have a lot more people moving here in the future and we’re OK with that,” he said. “But they’re going to want accessible parkland as well, and we want them to be able to enjoy this forest as we do now.”

The issue is expected to be before city council later in the summer.

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