News

Marijuana outlook foggy in Norfolk

By Monte Sonnenberg, Simcoe Reformer

SIMCOE  - 

Norfolk County is Canada’s top producer of numerous agricultural commodities.

With this track record and Norfolk’s reputation as “Ontario’s Garden,” it would surprise no one if the county eventually became Canada’s top producer of legal marijuana.

Norfolk council is facing the prospect with some trepidation.

Medicinal marijuana is already grown legally in numerous locations in Norfolk. As the industry intensifies, it is creating headaches by way of neighbourhood conflicts and incompatible land uses.

In response, Norfolk has struck a marijuana task force consisting of senior county staff and Health Canada officials. The group will table a report Jan. 9 on ways Norfolk can manage this growth with minimal disruption to surrounding neighbourhoods.

Senior planner Mat Vaughan is part of this task force. Tuesday, he told council that specifying marijuana as a particular land use would solve a lot of problems.

If this withstood a legal challenge, Norfolk could control the location of legal grow operations with minimum-distance setback provisions similar to those applied to livestock. The wild card here is no municipality in Ontario has ever identified a crop as a land use in its zoning bylaw.

There is a case for this approach. Rural residents of Norfolk have learned that marijuana is a pungent plant. A skunky aroma permeates the air around greenhouses where it is grown.

As the legal production of medicinal marijuana has spread, Norfolk council has heard increasing complaints about the smell, the noise from ventilating fans, the glare of grow lights, and the fears residents have about their property value.

“It’s great if they’re growing carrots,” Langton Coun. Roger Geysens told council Tuesday. “But marijuana? It’s the people affected by it that I’m worried about.”

These concerns were behind council’s refusal Tuesday to grant a severance to Nightingale Farms of LaSalette.

Several years ago, Bill Nightingale Jr. invested in a 2.9-acre greenhouse to grow organic cucumbers.

Skyrocketing hydro prices made the greenhouse uncompetitive, so Nightingale applied to sever a 7.9-acre parcel, with house, that he could sell as a standalone farm operation.

Neighbours were alarmed that a real estate listing said marijuana was a candidate for production in this facility.

Before the parcel can be sold in this manner, Nightingale Farms needs a variance from the county’s policy on viable farm operations. Norfolk’s official plan defines a viable farm as 100 acres or more.

Several neighbours have objected to Nightingale’s application. After hearing that operations such as this can quickly grow to thousands of plants under Health Canada regulations, council balked at the application.

Simcoe Coun. Peter Black said he does not have enough reliable information to make a sound decision. The Trudeau government’s recreational marijuana legislation hasn’t been firmed up and could be subject to unexpected changes before July 1.

“There’s a lot of work to be done yet,” Black said. “I’m trying to make a good decision on behalf of Norfolk County and not just one applicant.”

Planning staff recommended approval of the severance. Staff said the 7.9-acre parcel constitutes a viable farm given that a technologically-advanced greenhouse is part of the package.

Port Rowan Coun. Noel Haydt said denying the application could be a big mistake.

“Whether it grows sunflowers, pot, poppy seeds or saffron is none of our business,” Haydt said. “We’re at risk of opening a big legal headache for ourselves. What we’re being asked for is a severance. I don’t know how many of these we’ve approved before.”

The vote against the application was 4-3.

MSonnenberg@postmedia.com