Kelowna council has rejected the first application from a Kelowna farmer to be a licensed grower of medicinal marijuana classified as a non-farm land use.
Council was divided over the request, noting it goes against the city’s agriculture plan for land use that protects farmland for approved agriculture purposes under the Agricultural Land Reserve while acknowledging the applicant, Marlys Wolfe who with her husband Grant operate Falcon Ridge Farms on Rifle Road in Glenmore, are mired in conflicting regulations and requirements outlined by three levels of government for the infant cannabis industry.
Couns. Charlie Hodge, Brad Sieben and Mohini Singh initially stated their intent to vote against the planning staff recommendation to not support the non-farm use application be forwarded to the Agricultural Land Commission for further review.
But after listening to others around the council table voice their support for staff’s recommendation, Singh said she had to change her mind.
She initially outlined her inner conflict over Wolfe’s application going against the city’s policy to have marijuana production facilities located in industrial zoned areas and not ALR land.
“It goes against our city’s policy to push this kind of development towards industrial areas, but really if there will never be anything grown on it and it’s a gravel parking lot right now, if it’s going to have a concrete floor, why not?”
The concrete floor aspect was critical because Health Canada requires it for indoor growing facilities, while the ALC has set out soil-based outdoor growing as its regulation linchpin for cannabis production on agricultural land.
But after listening to opposing views from Couns. Luke Stack and Gail Given, Singh decided she would change her vote.
“I’m afraid now of what message we are sending out after saying we don’t want this on ALR land. I was just looking at the practicality of it, but now I think now I will have to go along with staff on this one.”
Singh’s flip-flop illustrated the ongoing confusion about the regulatory rules concerning cannabis production, which began with licenses to grow medicinal marijuana back in 2012 to the current evolution of the sale of recreation marijuana set to begin Oct. 17.
Back in 2012 when the medicinal marijuana licences application process was initiated by Health Canada, Marlys Wolfe was number six on the permit queue. Her intent was to build a 4,800 sq.ft. cannabis production indoor facility on her farm.
Her desire was to add another value-added aspect to her farming business, and expand her existing natural health and food products already generated by the farm.
She finally received a build permit approval from Health Canada in October 2017 and made application to the city for its approval in February 2018.
The city processed her request and discovered she had existing non-conforming land use issues that it wanted addressed before dealing with the cannabis operation approval.
While those issues were being resolved, in July the province, without advance notice to municipalities, announced a policy that would not allow indoor marijuana production facilities on ALR land equipped with a cement floor, leaving it in conflict with Health Canada stipulations.
That left Wolfe now having to seek approval from the Agricultural Land Commission to carry on with her project, and city approval to forward that request to the ALC.
Evan Cooke, a West Kelowna lawyer speaking on Wolfe’s behalf at Monday’s council meeting, said she started the process under a certain set of conditions and is being penalized through no fault of her own for the shifting regulations.
“I request that council forward the application to the ALC if only so they will do a further review of the existing regulations,” Cooke said.
But Coun. Luke Stack disagreed, noting that a piece of farmland not suitable for agriculture is a common refrain whenever council receives an application for non-farm use on ALR land.
“This could be productive land and to think otherwise is just another in a death of a thousand cuts to protecting our farmland,” argued Stack.
He said council adopted the industrial land use policy for cannabis production for reasons of water supply, sewer service and higher electricity demands, elements which farms often don’t comply with.
Given reiterated Stack’s call for consistency and to protect farmland. “We used to hear how McKenzie Bench was not suitable for agriculture, and we see today where it grows apple crops quite nicely. We are seeing with climate change that areas which were once considered not suitable for agriculture are now supporting agricultural growth. The cherry growing industry has expanded on many properties where historically that product has never grown before.”
Mayor Colin Basran, who also supported staff’s recommendation, said one of the concerns he hears from the younger generation of farmers is the affordability of farmland in the Okanagan.
He said an indoor cannabis production facility would skyrocket the value of the farm beyond the $100,000-an-acre price that currently exists because of the potential revenue it could generate.
“These people are great farmers and long-time friends of my family, but it is important we stay consistent in our support for preserving farmland. There are a number of permitted ALR uses for farmland besides tree fruits,” he added, in response to a failed bid in the past to generate a cherry crop on the land targeted for the cannabis facility.