Inconsistent municipal policies on cannabis in Southern Alberta

Licenced cannabis facilities, much like intensive feed operations, are likely to face a patchwork of local ordinances and zoning issues across southern Alberta— making it a challenge to set up growing operations despite heightened demand for the product.

Often these decisions by municipalities are seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent— sometimes driven by neighbouring landowners’ personal concerns or the vagaries of whatever elected body of the day decides based on more esoteric considerations.

Take, for example, what is happening in Medicine Hat and its neighbouring district of Cypress County. While cannabis giant Aurora is nearing completion of its ultra-modern facility in Medicine Hat, just a hop, skip and a jump away Cypress County recently all but squashed most near future development of the industry by refusing to allow existing greenhouse growers to re-zone to potentially grow cannabis instead of current offerings like red peppers and English cucumbers. And this despite the fact Cypress County has had a bylaw allowing for the construction of cannabis facilities in its district since 2017.

“At the public hearing stage, there were concerns raised with adjacent landowners with respect to odour control as well as additional intensive lighting, being it’s a greenhouse,” explains Cypress County planning supervisor Kaylene Simpson. “There was also concerns about potential security and the influx of crime to the area.”

Simpson says the decision not to allow existing greenhouses to re-zone to grow cannabis does not mean Cypress County would necessarily reject the construction of all new cannabis facilities if those facilities seek to establish themselves in zones where, by the wording of the current bylaw, they are permitted to do so; zones such as in Industrial, Light Industrial, Hamlet Industrial or Highway Industrial.

“The county was pro-active when the new cannabis regulations came into force in 2018,” she says. “By that time, we had updated the county land use bylaw. The council in place at that time felt the cannabis development facilities were best-suited in industrial use type land use districts. So in the case of other applications that might have come forward, likely would have had the correct land use zoning, and we would have been able to consider development applications in that instance.

“The difference between that and the (established) greenhouses is the greenhouses would have had designation where cannabis development was neither permitted or discretionary in that district.”

When asked if this kind of inconsistent policy might not drive away potential future cannabis investment, Simpson says that is not the intention of Cypress County council.

“What I can say is the county considers itself open for business,” Simpson states, “while keeping in mind there are many factors that council has to take into account when considering land use and development requests. And, of course, that is at the discretion of council.”

Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association president Alberta Cramer, who also operates his own greenhouse in the same Medicine Hat area, says the signal the county is sending is muddled to say the least. And such a mixed message, would make any cannabis investor looking at the county, despite its low tax, pro-agriculture and irrigation accessible environment, leery to either convert an existing greenhouse or start up a new cannabis growing facility.

“It is a huge investment to get into the cannabis world,” says Cramer. “If you want to as a greenhouse you could go there, and I think there are certain growers who are looking at it, but you have to get licences and all that— and there are other barriers (such as those found in Cypress County).”

Simpson confirms there are no formal applications for any new cannabis growing facilities in Cypress County being considered by the Municipal Planning Commission at this time.