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Town looks at amending zoning bylaw for growing cannabis in fertile marsh; ‘I fear that without action, marsh farming as we know it today will disappear,’ says farmer

A virtual public meeting under the Planning Act was held earlier this week to hear comments on a zoning-bylaw amendment application in the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury.

As manager of  ommunity planning Ryan Windle noted, this wasn’t the usual developer-driven application. In fact, Windle said it was a “town-initiated” zoning-bylaw amendment.

The town itself is seeking to amend its 2010 zoning bylaw, to control the growing of cannabis in the Holland Marsh. 

Currently, growing of cannabis is permitted as an ‘agricultural use’ in all countryside zones except Natural Heritage System One (NHS1). 

The amendment would still permit cannabis cultivation in agricultural (A) and rural (RU) zones, but prohibit such operations in NHS1 and NHS2 zones, and in the marsh agricultural (AM) zone of the Holland Marsh.

Windle acknowledged that the Holland Marsh is identified as a “specialty crop area” and, as such, “shall be used exclusively for the growing of vegetables and associated crops.”

However, he said, “there’s been an increase in the volume of inquiries and applications to grow cannabis” in the marsh and a proliferation of greenhouse operations. 

Last year, town council asked staff to review the options to limit cannabis operations in the marsh. The result was an interim-control bylaw limiting micro-cultivation, a requirement for site-plan control for any grow operation licensed by Health Canada, and now, the proposed changes to the zoning bylaw. 

Those changes also include a minimum setback for cannabis cultivation of 150 metres from sensitive land uses like schools, daycares and community centres. Cannabis crops will need to be enclosed by a security fence at least 1.8 metres high. 

And the coverage of greenhouses for cannabis cultivation would be limited to 30 per cent of a property, down from the maximum 50 per cent coverage for greenhouses used for other crops.

The public was invited to comment on the amendment. Council heard a series of impassioned pleas for immediate action to halt the loss of prime agricultural land to cannabis cultivation.  

First to speak was Dan Sopuch, a second-generation farmer. “The marsh has seen many changes over the years, but nothing so disruptive as cannabis production,” he said.  

He suggested that there were at least 80 cannabis operations in the Holland Marsh.

“The stench from these operations is terrible,” Sopuch said, adding it’s not only a nuisance for families living in the area, who are now considering moving because of the severity, but also a threat to farmers’ crops, jeopardizing their food-safety certification. 

“With every greenhouse that is constructed, valuable marsh soil is lost to vegetable production,” he said, noting that cannabis cultivation doesn’t need the unique marsh ‘muck’ soil. “All marijuana plants are grown in pots using peat soil.” 

He also raised concerns about drainage and flooding in the marsh, caused by the 50 per cent coverage by greenhouses, increasing the impermeable surfaces. He recommended that maximum coverage be lowered to 10 per cent.

“At 50 per cent greenhouse coverage, the system would be overwhelmed and flooding would occur in a heavy rain event,” Sopuch warned.  

He concluded that “council needs to act quickly and decisively and prohibit marijuana production on the Holland Marsh. I fear that without action, marsh farming as we know it today will disappear.” 

Marsh farmers Christine and Dave Munshaw also spoke to council about their concerns. 

“We are really blessed to have such a precious resource, here in Bradford and King Township,” she said. “We really need to stop this cannabis growing in the marsh. They do not need to be here.”

She told the meeting that some cannabis growers are dumping gravel and cement onto the precious marsh soil, to create a base for their greenhouses, making the land unusable as a result.

Dave Munshaw complained about the odour of cannabis. 

“The stench is unbearable,” he said. “It’s in my house, it’s in the basement, it’s in my barn.” 

He said that he can’t use his storage barn for his carrots because of the smell.

“I don’t know why we don’t want to grow food here,” he said. “What is the reasoning to allow these greenhouse operations to come in? We need to stop this now. It’s a huge problem and it’s not going to slow down… It’s a free-for-all.”

Avia Eek, Ward 6 Coun. for King Township and a marsh farmer, also spoke, calling on Bradford West Gwillinbury to work with neighbouring municipalities, Health Canada, the Office of the Fire Marshal and law enforcement to deal comprehensively with the “negative impacts” of cannabis cultivation in the specialty crop area. 

“Currently, this area is actively being marketed as desirable for marijuana growth, given the lush and fertile soil,” she said, noting that in King Township, more than 70 acres have been taken over by cannabis growers. 

“I can see six operations right from my backyard,” Eek added. “This is land that is no longer producing vegetables, because food has been replaced by cannabis.” 

She identified other issues. Unlike most marsh farmers, the cannabis growers “do not water their crops using the river or canal system, they are using well water,” she said.

As for the “stench” from cannabis, Eek described it as the “top of mind” for residents.

“People are not able to enjoy their property. It permeates the inside of buildings, vehicles and it’s not very nice,” she noted.

Eek suggested that the proposed setback of 150 metres is insufficient to deal with the problems. She noted that the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs recommends a 300-metre setback, and King Township requires a setback of 500 metres, and “even 500 metres is too close.”

There are also “huge concerns” about increased criminal activity in the area, related to cannabis. Eek cited an arson and attempted arson last year, and a robbery, when gun-toting thieves beat and tied up greenhouse workers, and stole the cannabis crop.

“The concerns about criminal activity are real and have merit,” Eek said. “Residents should not have to fear increased criminal activity.”

As well, cannabis operations are  driving up the price of farmland. “These people have deep pockets, they’re paying upward of $100,000 an acre for our soil. They’re putting the properties out of reach for our next generation farmers,” she warned.

Drainage issues, the threat to first-responders, the presence of firearms, dangerous guard dogs; Eek called for action to stop the cannabis operations from moving into the marsh.

“They don’t need to be here and are taking away precious vegetable growing soil,” she said. 

Deborah Salmons, who with her husband, Robert, has been a resident of the marsh for six years, said that she had read the 79-page staff report, but felt it wasn’t strong enough to stop the loss of the “so unique” marsh soils, for “something that could be done in a parking lot, for God’s sake.”

Salmons urged the town to take control.

“The marsh was built with sweat, blood and tears. Are we just going to spit on history? I hope not,” she said. “Put some teeth into what you’ve worked so hard on. You have the right to protect the citizens of this town.”

She praised the marsh farmers. 

“Farmers are there for their neighbours, farmers will lend a hand, farmers will feed families, farmers will turn around and give the shirt off their back,” Salmons said. “But these cannabis farmers, it’s nothing but the green back. It is all about money.” 

The stench of cannabis, the lights that are on from dusk until dawn ,the growers show “total disrespect for their neighbours,” she said.

She urged council to “do what is right. Eliminate the production of cannabis on our precious soil… We’ve got to put teeth in what you’ve written.”

“That’s what this meeting is about, to show some strength,” responded Mayor Rob Keffer, promising, “we will have a bylaw with teeth, that we can go to court.”

“We’ve heard the comments. They will be part of our review,” said Windle, noting that town staff have been working on a nuisance odour bylaw to address the complaints about cannabis odours. That will be coming to council on June 16.

“I look forward to having a zoning-bylaw amendment that has some teeth,” said Deputy Mayor James Leduc. “We need to deal with this definitely.”

He then asked whether the current interim control bylaw was enough to stop new cannabis operations from starting up. 

Windle explained that the interim-control bylaw applied only to micro-cultivation operations, putting a halt on any new uses in that category. 

He also pointed that that once the proposed zoning bylaw is amended it will halt new cannabis operations in the Holland Marsh, but will not be retroactive. Operations already in place would be ‘grandfathered,’ unless illegal. 

There are other tools, including site-plan control and the new nuisance bylaw that will be retroactive and will give the town some measure of control, he said.  

“I look forward to working with East Gwillimbury and King Township and see their bylaws,” said Leduc, noting that Bradford West Gwillimbury’s regulations should “certainly match King’s.”

“We need both municipalities to be with similar bylaws that we can enforce,” Coun. Raj Sandhu agreed.

“We are trying to make sure we are all comparing notes to address the issues consistently,” Windle replied. 

“I think it’s time we step up and say we want to ban any cannabis growing on the marsh,” said Coun. Ron Orr.  “We may not be able to do anything about the ones that are there now, but we need to have our legal situation set up that we can prevent anymore going into the marsh, and I hope that King and East Gwillimbury join us and save any more Marsh land going into cannabis growing.”

“Bottom line, the (draft) zoning bylaw will not allow cannabis to be grown in the marsh if we pass this bylaw,” confirmed Keffer. 

However, the bylaw is still a long way from being passed. The comments were referred to staff for review, and a recommendation to council at a later date. 

To view the full bylaw amendment draft, click here.

-with files from Miriam King

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