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Saanich poised to ban concrete grow-ops to protect farmland

Proposed bylaw, bound for hearing, aims to match new provincial rules
A windowless concrete building designed to grow medical marijuana is just off the Patricia Bay Highway, near Island View Road, in Central Saanich.

Saanich is poised to ban cannabis production in buildings with concrete flooring on protected agricultural land.

A proposed bylaw amendment, which goes to a public hearing Jan. 15, seeks to align the municipality’s rules with new provincial regulations for growing cannabis within the Agricultural Land Reserve.

B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture clarified last year that cannabis production is a protected farm use on ALR land only if it’s grown in ways that preserve the land’s “productive capacity.”

Specifically, cannabis can be grown only in an open field or in a structure with a soil base, in an existing licensed operation, or in a structure that was already built or under construction prior to July 13, 2018, when the new rules took effect.

The regulatory change effectively gave local and First Nations governments the authority to prohibit cannabis production in “cement-based, industrial-style, cannabis-production bunkers,” the government said at the time.

Saanich and other councils subsequently asked their staffs to update municipal bylaws to match the provincial regulations.

Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes said the provincial rules “make good sense” and dovetail with council’s desire to protect viable farmland for food production.

“The idea of paving over agricultural land for a commercial crop for marijuana has clear negatives in terms of the long-term use of the land for agricultural food production,” he said.

Coun. Judy Brownoff said it’s really about protecting the soil.

“You can imagine if you had concrete flooring all across ALR land, the soil would not be kept in a condition where you could grow things if that operation ceased,” she said. “So it’s to protect the soil for future growth.”

At the same time, Haynes said Saanich council remains keen to grow the municipal economy by welcoming new industry — including the marijuana sector.

“It’s incumbent on us as a municipality to ensure that we’re doing all we can to harness the economic and wellness benefit [of marijuana] for our residents, and meanwhile balance that with the imperative to maintain the food-production capabilities for future generations by preserving our farmlands,” he said.

Saanich Coun. Nathalie Chambers said one solution might be to create or expand a light industrial area where cannabis production facilities could be located and where the municipality could collect business taxes.

“We need to transcend that [money] back into community good, infrastructure, protecting green spaces and farmland,” she said.

Ken Marriette of Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land said he was unfamiliar with Saanich’s proposed bylaw amendment, but he’s generally supportive of local governments taking steps to match the provincial rules that prevent cannabis producers from covering protected farmland with cement.

“We’re not against cannabis per se, we’re just against destroying high quality or any farmland for future food production,” Marriette said, noting that B.C. consumers still rely on California for much of their food.

“One day, because of the droughts and the fire they have down there, and the heat waves and all the rest of it, we may have to grow a lot more food here in British Columbia.”

Central Saanich recently passed a similar bylaw amendment that prohibits cannabis production in the ALR if it fails to meet the Agricultural Land Commission’s definition of a protected farm use.

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