The Shuswap may become home to one of the largest medical cannabis growing operations in western Canada, and one of the few aiming to conduct purely organic cultivation methods.
Many in the area are feeling positive about the development, which aims to bring around 100 jobs both directly related to cannabis as well as office and transport work. However, the site of the project – on an isolated piece of property in Celista – has raised concerns from some neighbours who believe the large development will become a nuisance to their day-to-day lives, and affect the agricultural land it is being built on.
Under construction by Liht Cannabis Corp, formerly known as Marapharm Ventures, the site aims to house 10 buildings at 10,0000 square feet each, spread across 40 acres in the North Shuswap which were once a family farm. While the company has been trying to assuage concerns surrounding the development, there is still some push-back on the part of concerned residents.
“It’s an eyesore already, it is right beside the road. These are going to be bunker-style concrete buildings, and my stand that I maintain is, why here, in one of the only benches of farmland in the whole North Shuswap, why would you put this operation here?” asks Deanna Kawatski, who lives across from the site.
In an effort to confront any concerns head-on, Liht held two public information sessions relating to the development this past Saturday, Nov. 17, in Celista and Blind Bay. During these sessions, key members of the company as well as the team which will be operating the facility in Celista spoke at length – including Cody Hamilton, head cultivator and senior person in charge of operations, agriculture director Gabriel Cipes and Tyler Hereld who will act as head of security.
During the information session in Blind Bay, several residents expressed their support for the development, the potential economic benefits and jobs it may bring to the area. In addition, some local investors in the company came out to get an update on progress being made.
While a large focus of the Blind Bay meeting was on the purpose of the grow-op – providing high-grade medicinal cannabis to medical users in western Canada – questions of environmental footprint and community impact were also discussed.
“When you think about a marijuana grow op you tend to think about smell, mess, maybe stealing power and illicit activities going on you don’t want in your community that could be putting you or your home at risk,” Hamilton said. “Our facilities are not a conventional cannabis cultivation operation of the past. With our practices we take careful consideration of our output materials and impact on the environment. Bio-security and preservation are extremely important factors for us.”
To support this claim, Hamilton discussed the measures taken to limit their impact on the land. The facilities will operate using proprietary technology – some of which has been developed in partnership with NASA – that will reportedly completely contain all emissions, limit water use by extracting water from the air and recycle up to 85 per cent of the water used and generate their own power to avoid tapping into local lines. In addition, he stated they will completely forgo any use of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides in their cultivation.
Hamilton also spoke on questions of increased traffic in the area and times of operation, as residents raised concerns over around-the-clock traffic coming to and from the facility. He said the facility will run primarily during daytime business hours, and the traffic to and from the site was described as similar to what one could expect from a family farming operation.
The use of ALR land remains a point of contention for some residents.
“It’s a known fact these companies are going around and buying B.C. farmland; farmland is disappearing whether from drought or chemical agriculture, so many things are impacting it and we need to hang on to what we have got,” Kawatski says. “People will say there is a lot of ALR land that isn’t farmed; well maybe that is true but it still holds the potential for being farmed. If they do that kind of thing it destroys that potential.”
In July of this year, the Agricultural Land Commission introduced a regulation which designated “the production of marihuana in accordance with the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulation” as farm use supported on ALR land.
However, an amendment to the regulation limits the growing of cannabis to “outdoors in a field or inside a structure… that has a base consisting entirely of soil.”
Although not underground bunkers, in that regard, the development in Celista is contrary to ALC regulation: all 10 of the proposed buildings are concrete-based structures. However, the regulation also states any facilities in construction before July 13, with the proper permits in place for the purpose of growing cannabis or other crops, will be considered lawful under the regulation.
While the first two of the proposed 10 buildings at the Celista facility fall within the July 13 construction date, Martin Collins, director of policy and planning with the Okanagan ALC, says there is little certainty regarding the remaining eight buildings.
“The other eight buildings are still very much up in the air; they have to make an application for those for sure. They are not under construction, it doesn’t count. If it was a single unit and was under construction it would be different but they are all separate units,” Collins said.
The situation is a tricky one for the ALC – and many other regulatory bodies across Canada – because the fact is they are making many of these determinations for the first time.
“We don’t know if the ALC supports something like this, there has never been an application before,” Collins said. “We’re on the first ones, so when I say ‘up in the air,’ I mean it truly. Nobody knows if the ALC would support this or not.”
When asked about this during the meeting in Blind Bay, Liht’s independent director Richard Huhn expressed the opinion it would be unlikely the remainder of the development would be obstructed, considering how far along it already is.
Linda Sampson, Liht’s chief operating officer, stated: “We are not permitted under the ALR regulations to develop more than 25 per cent of our property. So it would be no different than somebody buying the land and putting up several dairy barns or something similar.”
Sampson insists the company is committed to learning from the lessons of many failed cannabis operations.
“We have seen things that are badly and poorly done. We have watched other companies who have raced ahead to become the biggest. Most people say, when they are in a bad situation, ‘in hindsight we should have done this.’ In our case on this particular project we have the hindsight of everybody who went ahead of us and did everything wrong,” she said.
Potentially complicating things further is the question of whether the company had the proper building permits in place to begin construction. The company reported to the ALC they were working under the assumption their buildings were considered farm buildings and thus did not require a building permit, but were later advised to apply for proper permits, which they did.
Currently, they have two permits in for the development with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, one for the construction and another for demolition of a building on the property. According to Marty Herbert, team leader of building and bylaw services with the CSRD, these applications include “approval of the proposed land use from the ALC.”