Members of council in North Cowichan are divided about growing commercial marijuana on Agricultural Land Reserve property in the municipality.
A motion by Coun. Rob Douglas at the meeting on Sept. 8 to have staff prepare a report and draft zoning to prohibit pot production in the ALR unless it is grown in ways that preserve the productive capacity of agricultural land, was referred to a council meeting in October after a lengthy debate.
Douglas said that senior levels of government gave local governments the right to prohibit some of the production of marijuana in the ALR within their communities last year, including in concrete bunkers, but more recent communications with the Ministry of Agriculture has made the issue “murky”.
“We’re right back to where we were last July,” he said.
“That’s why I want a staff report so we can determine how we should proceed.”
Earlier this year, the province declared, to the surprise of many local governments, that all marijuana production in the ALR will be considered farm use and that the Agricultural Land Commission is no longer dealing with applications to grow cannabis.
Many local governments around B.C., including North Cowichan, have pressed the government to protect farmland from large greenhouse complexes for legal marijuana taking up the province’s scarce food-growing land.
ALC regulations prevent concrete pads from being put on farmland to grow marijuana, but now the change leaves local governments with the task of controlling how much farmland is covered by cannabis fields grown in soil.
Douglas said he’s concerned about the loss of farm land to marijuana production, and the changing rules that eventually could allow pot to be grown in large concrete bunkers on ALR land, unless the municipality establishes its own rules.
“The ALR was created to preserve agricultural land for food production, and it should not be lost to industrial uses,” he said.
“If we allow (concrete facilities) to pave over farmland, there’s no way we will get it back. The legalization of marijuana is a reality and producers have to have places to grow, but it should be in industrial or commercial zoned areas.”
But Coun. Tek Manhas said a lot of the land in the municipality’s ALR is not good for farming and should be considered for other uses.
“I’m afraid we’ll be handcuffing ourselves (if zoning amendments are made),” he said.
“I think we should handle applications to grow marijuana in the ALR on a case-by-case basis.”
Mayor Al Siebring said he agrees with the concerns Manhas raised, and felt they could be addressed in the staff report Douglas is recommending.
“An application should not be automatically disqualified just because it’s in the ALR,” he said.
“If the application is for a building to be constructed over prime growing soil, we can prohibit it.”
Coun. Rosalie Sawrie said she wouldn’t want to limit the options of farmers in what crops they choose to grow.
“I support farmers and more of them are struggling,” she said.
“If they want to grow a cash cop as well as food crops, they should have the opportunity.”
Coun. Kate Marsh said she’s concerned about the ability of local farmlands to feed people if, in the future, the region won’t be getting food from California or Chile due to climate change.
“I like to think ahead,” she said.
“We should see if other jurisdictions are looking at this.”
Douglas said he still thinks pot production should be prohibited in all zones but industrial and commercial, but he’s open to new ideas.
“I’m concerned that if we allow industrial-type growing operations in the ALR, we’ll be opening up a whole can of worms,” he said.
It was decided to refer the issue to a future council meeting as staff is currently at capacity with other work and reports.