By Trevor Busch
Under pressure from administration, town council has moved to loosen land-use restrictions for cannabis following a split 4-2 vote.
In October 2017, council passed third reading of a land-use bylaw amendment defining cannabis and cannabis-related uses as well as revising existing definitions to clearly exclude cannabis from bars, retail stores, industrial uses, and home-based businesses.
In January 2018, council ordered that cannabis-related uses would only be allowed within a Direct Control District, subject to the exclusive approval of council.
In March, council had also directed administration to include separation distances of 100 metres from any school and hospital uses.
Under administration’s request for decision at town council’s May 14 regular meeting, Option A would preserve cannabis-related uses within a Direct Control District (requiring a public hearing and a decision of council) under council’s original direction from January 2018.
According to administration, while this would maintain a high level of council control, it would also demand a high level of administrative time and effort with each application, escalates the level of red tape while providing little direction to individuals interested in starting a business, and does not allow for appeal.
“For something that is going to be, in a few months, a typical ‘good’, like any other good that can be bought and sold, I think going a direct control route for this one is a little over the top,” said CAO Cory Armfelt. “Direct control, there’s good uses for it if you have a very unique sort of development conundrum, that’s when a direct control tool can be used, but for something that’s going to be a very standard fare within Canadian society in six months, it’s not the approach that administration would take.”
Under Option B — which was administration’s recommendation — cannabis-related uses would be discretionary in certain districts, with development permits granted or refused at the discretion of the Municipal Planning Commission (MPC) on a case by case basis taking into account impacts such as parking and traffic, appropriateness of location, and the compatibility with adjacent development, among other considerations.
Administration would point out that while this approach allows for a lower level of council control with the decision-making authority placed back into the hands of the MPC and the Subdivision and Appeals Board, it makes for a more streamlined process that provides direction to prospective business owners, and allows for an appeal process.
“I have my reservations about allowing a cannabis retail store to be located anywhere near an existing business,” said Coun. Joe Strojwas. “The fact is that as this whole process evolves, it could very well be that we grant a license to a business in a commercial area and next door there’s a business that’s not appreciative of having this kind of facility next door to it. As this evolves, and you add edibles and everything else to it, I feel that somewhere down the line there’s going to be sampling from these products. The problem is, if you grant this for a business and that smoke infringes — say if it’s in a mall through the air system — on the business next door, what kind of recourse do we have for that business that’s being infringed on by one of these smoking areas?”
Armfelt suggested these kinds of concerns can easily be dealt with in other ways that don’t require direct control.
“Through placing conditions of development permits, we can regulate almost any sort of undesirable impact that any particular business may have on another. Noise, smell — anything like that we can actually put a condition on a business.”
According to administration, recent discussion at the MPC had involved a request for an update on what the town was preparing in terms of land use and cannabis legalization.
Option A was presented to the commission, and there was “overall agreement that it was a good approach for the town.”
Further discussion by the commission related to the town potentially pre-zoning lands in the industrial area as direct control for the purpose of cannabis-related uses, and that those lands should be the only area considered in order to directly control their location.
Planning director Andrew Malcolm suggested that “clustering” retail uses may create a specific area that experiences “cumulative environmental, social and aesthetic impacts, and further, that placing them in the industrial part of town would limit the amount of pedestrian surveillance better afforded by main commercial areas.”
Many municipalities including Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, St. Albert, and Banff are implementing separation distances to prevent clustering.
This recommendation was ultimately declined by the MPC in favour of clustering, with the commission passing a motion moved by Coun. Joe Strojwas to recommend council consider re-zoning land as a direct control district to incorporate cannabis retail sales within a 150 square metre radius of the intersection of 69th Avenue and 62nd Street.
“That again is not something that your administration is recommending that council do, to ostracize or relegate that use to one particular portion of the municipality,” said Armfelt. “There’s a number of planning principles that relate to the reason why. Most important is it’s going to be a standard product in six months that people can buy and sell, and to have the most benefit of security and eyes on the street, we feel it should be integrated into a standard commercial setting that would be policed normally like anything else, rather than relegating it into one corner of the municipality where additional efforts need to be extended to policing just this one particular portion of the municipality.”
“We could add it as a use in our heavy industrial district. But that’s essentially how you’re treating it, as a heavy industrial use when it’s simply a product for sale.”
Strojwas suggested law enforcement in the province is already encountering issues with people parking and walking to another location to purchase cannabis in an effort to “avoid detection”, although he didn’t specify how this activity would possibly amount to criminality in a post-legal environment.
“The police forces in Alberta already have a problem, because these are going to be set up all over the place. They already have issues with people parking in an area, and then walking and buying their cannabis from another location to avoid detection, so to speak. It’s problem with the police forces, and trying to figuring out how to regulate this. If we regulate this from the onset in just this three block area that these businesses are allowed to be in, then we don’t have to worry about them parking in a mall, walking down the street, taking it and coming back around. It makes it so that the people that are going to this location are going there for a reason, and it can be easily monitored. It really puts the police department in a better perspective in policing this.”
Critical of the impacts of legalization in some U.S. states, Strojwas suggested “corruption” will ensue in Canada if cannabis isn’t tightly regulated by local jurisdictions.
“There’s going to be some real policing issues with this. We’ve already seen it down in Colorado and different places, there’s a real problem because the only way to test this is with blood samples. They say accidents have increased 15-20 per cent on a combination of alcohol and cannabis in an individual’s bloodstream. Twenty-six businesses have been busted already in Colorado because they weren’t legally selling pot. There’s already a lot of corruption, and if we don’t do this right from the onset, we’re going to have problems down the road. In a conversation with top managers from the Solictor General’s office, they haven’t allocated any money back to municipalities for policing or administrating any of this. Being the local state of our government as it is now, I doubt we’re going to get a fair percentage anyway down the road.”
Coun. Carly Firth pointed out that segregating cannabis retail to a low traffic area buried deep in the community’s industrial area could become a problem rather than a solution.
“I think that by relegating it to the industrial area, we might have the opposite effect. I don’t know if the intent is to hide it, to keep it out of the public eye, but if it’s going to be over in the industrial area and these stores are going to be open to 10 p.m., it’s going to be the only thing open over there, and not a lot of traffic. Downtown, maybe there’s a little bit more traffic where other retail businesses would be located. Maybe it’s a little bit easier to police, rather than pulling our police force in two different directions. To me, it’s like a liquor store. If someone’s going to walk into a liquor store and they’re going to buy alcohol — and you can disagree with me — police can see that. If you’re walking into a cannabis store to buy cannabis, police should be able to see that.”
Heavy regulatory burdens will handcuff operations for council and administration, according to Coun. Garth Bekkering.
“This seems like a very tough job for council, every time you get an application its got to go through council to decide or not. Let’s face it, we’re seven people around a table, and personalities become involved I believe which is not very beneficial. I’m leaning toward Option B, and I’m also leaning toward administration’s suggestion to have it in the areas that administration was recommending — not in the industrial area but in the downtown area. There’s enough caveats in the permitting process to I think allay some of Councillor Strojwas’ concerns, but let’s face it, this is all brand new to us. And it’s certainly not a perfect situation, I’d rather not have any of that s#%t here. But the reality is that it’s going to happen.”
Like Firth, Coun. Jack Brewin compared cannabis retail to the operation of a liquor store.
“I think we have a good MPC board that can make proper decisions. I would support Option B. It’s going to be here. Let’s have it so we can watch it. It is similar to a liquor store really. How many liquor stores are there in Taber?”
Administration would also note that “the legalization of cannabis will impact municipalities regardless of how restrictive local regulations are. There is potential that by over regulating council and administration may become overburdened with red tape, while at the same time creating an environment that discourages legal businesses from opening in town, which provides increased taxes and jobs for residents.”
Following discussion, council voted 4-2 to pass first reading of Cannabis Land-Use Amendment Bylaw 13-2018 in alignment with Option B to regulate cannabis as a discretionary use within standard land use districts, and sets May 28 as the date for a public hearing. Coun.(s) Mark Garner and Joe Strojwas opposed the motion, while Coun. Louie Tams was absent from the meeting.