Fen skate plan benched

Businessman claims he’s not out to make money, he’s just giving back

Serpentine Fen has been transformed into an outdoor skating mecca, attracting hundreds of shinny fans since its frozen waterways were deemed safe Sunday.

But by Monday, organizers had to put plans on ice and shut down the pick-up games and other activities.

Marty Van der Zalm, a co-owner of nearby Art Knapps Plantland on King George Highway, said he and others have been ordered off the Fen because a deal he thought he’d struck with the provincial government to provide recreational insurance is unworkable.

“We were building a curling rink out there and a speed skating oval out there,” he said Monday.

“We were getting everything ready. But now it’s all off.”

Van der Zalm offered to pay $600 for insurance, but couldn’t because he doesn’t own the Serpentine Wildlife Area – the province does.

After more than two years of talks with government reps, he thought he had persuaded the Environment ministry to arrange the insurance.

But just as ice fans were lacing up their skates, Van der Zalm got a letter from the province approving plans to host public skating on the Fen. The only catch was he had to arrange insurance – something Van der Zalm maintains is impossible.

Environment officials said anyone can skate on the Fen in its natural state, and the province’s insurance will apply.

But Kate Thompson said Van der Zalm’s bigger plans and the possible sale of food and drink triggered the requirement for separate insurance.

“Once you’re promoting or selling stuff down there it crosses the line over into the realm of commercial,” she said Tuesday.

“We can’t change government policy and government regulations.”

She said efforts to find an insurer continue.

But Van der Zalm denies money was ever going to change hands.

“We supply hot dogs and coffee and there’s no charge,” he said.

“This was just a way to give back to the community. But they keep looking at a businessman and saying he must be making money at it somehow.”

For Van der Zalm and his crew, it’s a disappointment.

“We called ourselves the Keepers of the Ice,” he said.

“We test the ice. We have concrete finishers to smooth the ice when it’s bad. We have snow blowers so when there’s snow we get rid of it. We go around with propane torches and seal up the cracks.”

For decades he and others have skated at the Fen.

“When we were kids we used to come down and skate on every little pond in the fields,” he recalls.

But most of Surrey’s low pasture lands wet enough for winter skating have vanished – many replanted as blueberry fields.

“The Fen is the last guaranteed wet spot that’s fairly safe, because it’s not deeper than three feet,” Van der Zalm said.

The deal he thought he had with the province was supposed to mean this year their informal efforts over the years would be legitimate and they could turn ice dreams into reality.

Organizers had already set up donated barbecues, generators, bleachers and hockey nets. They’d arranged music, food and drinks, fire pits and garbage collection.

The weather co-operated.

“When you get down to that pond with kids on it you get a warm, fuzzy glow inside,” Van der Zalm said.

His vision of a free public winter event may be off, but he doubts skaters will stay away if the cold weather holds.

“They’re not going to stop the people from coming now. The genie’s out of the bottle,” he said.

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