North Cowichan councillors are leaning towards approval of the B.C. government cannabis shop application at Cowichan Commons, but it’s not a done deal. Yet.
They went as far as giving the zoning bylaw third reading but balked at adopting it, deciding to wait for the next meeting, so they can think a little further on the issue.
Mayor Al Siebring encapsulated the situation for his colleagues by pointing out that he’d talked with Chief William Seymour of Cowichan Tribes, which is putting forward its own application for a Costa Canna cannabis outlet at the same mall.
He said that Seymour had been quite disappointed that the two applications were going ahead, and said that Costa Canna would be pulling out because it was very difficult to compete with the province.
The mall contains two parcels of land, not just one, and that allows for two applications, even though “it was not the intent of the policy” to have two pot shops in the same mall.
Siebring then asked his colleagues to consider the “potential for bad relations” with First Nations, adding, “I’m not ducking this” but didn’t want to “create unnecessary barriers in relations” with First Nations groups trying to increase their economic footprint for the benefit of their people.
He suggested turning down the application because the province “doesn’t need our approval for this”, a state of affairs he viewed with “a certain irony”.
Eventually, it was Coun. Kate Marsh who led the charge on the other side, but it was clear she was having trouble with it.
“I agree that First Nations have had a lot of hardship,” she said, but then added, “our decision is based on land use. It is two parcels. I wanted Costa Canna to have a chance. If we allow both, it’s not because we have anything against them. I doubt when Rona and Home Depot applied [to be located in the Cowichan Commons Mall] that council would have said: we can’t have two. I mean no disrespect to the Cowichan First Nation but I do not support turning this down.”
Siebring immediately jumped in, saying, “we are having this discussion because these are cannabis stores. We regulate cannabis. This is different from Rona and Home Depot.”
Coun. Christopher Justice supported Marsh.
“It’s not our decision on market share, to regulate competition. I’m very much in support of First Nations economic development. We’ve supported Costa Canna,” he said, adding that he felt there will be plenty of opportunity there, and competition could be a good thing.
“We’ve made every effort to keep the playing field level but we should not be turning down applications.”
Coun. Rob Douglas brought up another aspect entirely, while supporting the government application.
“I can appreciate what Costa Canna is propsoing. It’s an exciting vision. But, I see some real social benefits from the provincial application,” he said pointing to the “living wages” that employees there would be paid, plus the use of provincial profits for services for the community.
Coun. Rosalie Sawrie disagreed with Marsh, Justice, and Douglas.
“I don’t think the playing field is level. It’s a conflict for the province to be approving theirs while still considering Costa Canna.”
In the end, Siebring and Sawrie voted against passing third reading of the zoning bylaw, with Marsh, Douglas, and Justice voting for it. Councillors Tek Manhas and Debra Toporowski had stepped out of the discussions, declaring conflicts of interest.
North Cowichan CAO Ted Swabey urged councillors to keep to the idea of handling the application as purely a land use issue. Anything else, he said, was on a government to government level between Cowichan Tribes and the province, and if the municipality became involved “it would do more harm than good.”
There was considerable discussion on the possibility of adopting the bylaw at the same time, but council will wait for the next meeting before making that decision.