Greenhouse crop concerns in Whonnock

The 40,000 square foot structure could grow medical marijuana if it gets the green light from the federal government.

Tim Fitzgerald/THE NEWS (Clockwise from front) Brigit and Harald Mischke

Tim Fitzgerald/THE NEWS (Clockwise from front) Brigit and Harald Mischke

Whonnock residents are worried about the size, smell and the traffic of a potential medicinal marijuana operation on 272nd Street, but the man behind the project says it will be a showcase of high-tech growing.

By summer, a 40,000-sq.-foot greenhouse will be complete on a 15-acre piece of property tucked into a low-lying area near Whonnock Creek.

Just what will be grown inside the glass is up to Health Canada.

“The end use, in terms of crop, has not been determined,” said Daniel Sutton, president of the numbered company that’s building the project.

Sutton is with Tantalus Labs in Vancouver, a medicinal marijuana company that grows “sun-grown medical marijuana using purpose-built, closed-system greenhouses.”

Sutton said: “We’re a greenhouse construction company, so the cannabis aspect is clearly compelling to us.”

However, Health Canada has not yet issued a licence to grow medicinal marijuana at that location. The health agency is careful to whom it grants licences, Sutton added.

“Which is why we’re not betting the farm on cultivating medical cannabis – betting the farm, literally.”

Sutton said the operation will be highly automated with a small workforce. Initial uses could be for a tree nursery or other horticulture crops, but could switch to medical marijuana if a licence is obtained.

Neighbours in the area are worried that odour from pot plants would smell bad.

“Regardless, whatever crop we plant, odour will not be a consideration,” Sutton said.

Health Canada regulations require all grow facilities to filter indoor air before it is exhausted. As well, security cameras and alarms are required while the entire design of the facility has to ensure that it prevents unauthorized access. Identification has to be tracked of those who enter and leave marijuana production areas.

Medicinal marijuana productions are a permitted use within B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve and municipal zoning isn’t needed.

A permit has been issued to build an agricultural building on the Whonnock site.

However, Tantalus Labs does have to meet city setback requirements, and the city’s regulations for protecting streams.

“We’ve gone above and beyond the expectation for environmental restoration work,” said Sutton.

Sediment runoff is being controlled, as required, and more than 2,200 trees and shrubs have been planted.

A nature conservation area is also required as part of the permitting process.

According to the City of Maple Ridge, the project has both a building permit and watercourse protection development permit. The latter required an assessment of the streams nearby and set out vegetation buffer areas that must remain along the streams. A restoration plan, sediment control and environmental monitoring are other requirements.

Peter Janis lives nearby is worried the operation will smell as much as suspected illegal grow ops nearby.

Also, the industrial/agricultural project doesn’t fit with the surrounding homes, he added.

“This is going to be a major installation. It’s absolutely huge,” he said.

“It’s unbelievable that for 100 years, we regulated it, then all of a sudden we say, ‘Hey, go for it. It’s illegal, now it’s a free for all.’”

Janis is also worried about property values dropping, as the greenhouse lies within the ALR, while surrounding residential properties, such as his, are not.

“That seems, to me, there’s something wrong,” he said. “It just seems to me there should be some kind of zoning.”

John Nelson, another resident, is also worried about odours and property values, as well as traffic and light pollution.

“This is a middle class residential neighbourhood in an historic area. Just south from the property in question are two historic churches [circa 1912 and1914],” he said in a letter to Health Canada.

He also wants the public to have some input into the project by having a public forum, a measure that Sutton said he’d consider.

“We are interested in community outreach, so at some point it’s definitely feasible that we would host an informal meeting.”

Maple Ridge council currently is reviewing a bylaw amendment removing the requirement for medical marijuana operations to be at least a kilometre from each other.

Staff are recommending the change because the requirement could unfairly restrict future medical marijuana facilities from opening. The restriction could unfairly impact one operation if another operation receives its Health Canada licence to grow medicinal marijuana first, despite the former applying earlier.

“Significant interest has been expressed by private investors to locate new facilities in Maple Ridge,” says a staff report.

Agrima Botanicals, which built a medicinal marijuana operation in northwest Maple Ridge in 2013, is still waiting for its Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations licence. The company is still waiting for its pre-licence inspection.

In December 2013, Maple Ridge council decided medical marijuana operations should only go in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read said she understands how residents feel.

“Is there anything we can do in terms of public notification?”

She said the company has notified the city about its plans, as part of its application to Health Canada for a marijuana grow licence.

“This is something the public deserves to be aware of if it’s going on in their neighbourhood and we are now completely restricted. Not great,” Read said.

“The question is, does the city have the ability, at that point, to communicate to the residents? Is there anything we can do in terms of notification?”

She’s asked staff for a report on what role the city can take in such applications.

“We’re so restricted with this with the way the federal government is proceeding …whereby they grant the licence at the end of the process.”

She also wants clarification from Health Canada on who responds to complaints about odour or security. “They’re not openly communicating with us.”