Pelham's Cannabis Control Committee, meeting on March 10, 2020. DON RICKERS

Committee aims to meet deadline, crucial council vote comes next week

Pelham’s Cannabis Control Committee (CCC) met last Tuesday, March 10, to review the first draft of a new cannabis odour by-law, presented by Nick McDonald of Meridian Planning Consultants.

McDonald has 30 years experience advising municipalities across the province, and told the committee that he has a sound working knowledge of the cannabis industry. His firm worked with the Town of Halton Hills in 2018, when they were exploring various types of cannabis-related land uses from a policy and regulatory perspective.

Along with the consultant and committee members, Mayor Marvin Junkin, town Chief Administrative Officer David Cribbs, and Planning and Development Director Barb Wiens were present at the meeting.

Microclimates exist in the northern part of Pelham which make it difficult to assess and determine impacts from cannabis odour, said McDonald. With that in mind, he developed an Official Plan amendment that basically pre-identifies areas in the Town where cannabis processing could occur, subject to a zoning bylaw amendment process and fulfillment of a host of criteria. But the pre-identification of where cannabis can grow does not extend into the Greenbelt area.

“If a cannabis grower wanted to locate within the Greenbelt, in accordance with this strategy, they would have to amend both the Official Plan and the zoning bylaw,” said McDonald. “By pre-identifying where the growers can locate, we’re clearly indicating to the industry that you’ll have an easier time of getting approval outside of the Greenbelt,” said McDonald.

He cautioned that this is predicated on the Town having credible experts who in court could provide sound technical arguments to defend this decision. And McDonald could provide no assurances that a court would rule in Pelham’s favour.

CCC member and Pelham greenhouse operator Louis Damm said that the big cannabis producers have their operations entirely indoors. He maintains that the number one problem is that many of these operators have made mistakes with regard to sizing the facility, as they retrofitted old greenhouses that were too low and short. Advanced ventilation system technology is available, but it’s not a licensing requirement. The new facilities have much better control over odour.

“They’ve rushed to market to establish their position. They’re innovators. They have their brand, and they’re looking for a quick profit,” said Damm.

Damm suggested that cannabis growers do not operate as do farmers. “Farmers have better communication. They work together. Whereas cannabis producers are out for themselves, they’re not interested in learning best practices from each other. They’re experimenting, and nobody knows what the best practice is. And we’re seeing the result.”

Discussion moved on to the establishment of buffer distances from densely-populated areas in the Town.

With existing cannabis facilities in Pelham, McDonald said that there were a couple of different approaches possible.

“One is to recognize the existing use, but not allow any expansion beyond what exists…what I would call ‘shrink wrapping.’ The other option is to come up with something reasonable in terms of expansion that can proceed without being subject to penalties. Both have significant implications.”

In the first case, there would be a high likelihood of a court challenge by the cannabis growers. Thus far, the Town has been challenged by three local cannabis operators either in court or at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT).

Last Friday, committee chair Tim Nohara and Councillor Mike Ciolfi (the designated council member on the committee) met with the Voice to reflect on the committee’s work.

Nohara asserted that last September, the community spoke loudly and clearly to Town Council that residents were suffering adverse effects from cannabis odour being vented by the primary grow operations in town, amongst other issues. With other cannabis operations looking to gain a foothold in Niagara, residents wanted action.

Odour is not the only concern Pelham residents have with cannabis operations. Light pollution, traffic noise, reduction of agricultural lands, adverse impacts from groundwater flow and contamination of drinking water and septic, environmental impacts and habitat loss for wildlife—all potentially leading to loss of property value—are all on worrisome.

“Residents told council, do a good job with it,” said Nohara. “If our taxes need to go up, if you need to spend money on lawyers, do the best thing for Pelham. That’s fair and reasonable and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We knew we would face legal challenges from the cannabis growers. We’re pioneering, meaning there is no case law. The cannabis industry is new. The lawyers don’t have a crystal ball either, and that’s why it takes so much work. There’s no simple process. We’re creating, hopefully, a new best practice and a regulatory framework. And we will be tested.”

The odor bylaw is coming to council on March 23 for discussion and potential approval. Work is also being conducted in concert with the Niagara Escarpment Commission. The committee now has a first draft and a process to review that draft, make revisions, and receive input from Town staff.

“I think what will be presented on the 23rd is the right balance,” continued Nohara. “It’s critical that it gets passed, and quickly. We are running out of time. There will be differences of opinion. Are we pushing hard enough? Have we gone too far? Some people will be upset with the compromises that we’ve made.”

Ciolfi said that the committee and Town staff need to quickly reflect on the consultant’s draft, since they saw it for the first time last Tuesday.

“At the public meeting last September, Town staff did research and gave us an excellent starting point. The committee now is up to speed on the research and the approaches and the trade-offs,” said Ciolfi.

The committee intends to deal with the odour bylaw first, and Official Plan and zoning bylaw amendments second.

“We have an interim control bylaw that expires on July 15th this year,” said Nohara. “And there are serious consequences if we don’t pass everything by that date.”

Nohara stressed that there is an incentive for the Town to reduce its legal risk in the face of potential challenges. If cannabis producers appeal any one of the Town’s bylaws that are passed within the interim control bylaw period, the interim control bylaw is automatically extended until the appeal is heard, which could be a year or two down the road.

But if the new bylaw is not passed until after July 15, and that bylaw gets appealed by the cannabis growers’ lawyers, there’s no extension. The bylaw dies.

“That’s why it’s so critical we get the work done now,” said Nohara.

Nohara and Ciolfi were quick to praise the contributions of their fellow CCC members.

“We have great farmers, who know the tender fruit industry of the Greenbelt, and understand farm practices,” said Nohara. “We have engineers on the committee. So we’re really fortunate to have a broad set of expertise that helps us research and push the envelope of what’s possible, and then assess and balance that against planning practices and legal challenges. We’re trying to find the right sweet spot, if you will, that will improve the lot for residents against the adverse effects they’ve experienced.”

 

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