County-based medical marijuana appeal denied

The land use appeal of Canruderal Inc., a commercial medical marijuana operation hoping to set up shop in Ponoka County, was once again

The land use appeal of Canruderal Inc., a commercial medical marijuana operation hoping to set up shop in Ponoka County, was once again denied, this time by the county’s appeal board.

It was a 4-1 vote to uphold the previous decision made by Thomas Webber, development officer, at the initial hearing on Nov. 22, 2013.

At the first hearing, the board received 16 letters of opposition and two letters of support. “Basically, as the development officer, with those kind of results I’m duty-bound to refuse the application,” said Webber at the appeal, explaining as to why the application had been declined once before.

The five members of the appeal board — Nancy Hartford, Bryce Liddle, Brice Milne, Jess Hudson and John Busaan — deliberated for three hours on the matter. They carefully took into account the position of the appellant and senior owner of the company, Shaun Howell, as well as the many concerns of the unhappy landowners surrounding the proposed site, which lies west of Ponoka.

In the end, the appeal board was acutely aware and affected by their own concerns of the unknown, says board secretary Charlie Cutforth. “I think the real concern there is there’s no track record to fairly judge if there’s a security concern.”

This commercial operation would be the first of its kind in Alberta and the county’s bylaws were not equipped to service the request, forcing the appeal board to label it a discretionary use.

Cutforth feels, when doubts were raised on the suitability of allowing a discretionary use, coupled with the other concerns, it became too much to approve.

The majority of the appeal board agreed the level of doubt within the community and raised many other concerns and objections to the location, because the site would have been 23km away from Ponoka, RCMP and fire department.  “If that’s considered too far for immediate response, so be it,” said Cutforth.

In the future, the county will have to address this kind of issues and the direction of the bylaws in conjunction with other counties, says Cutforth. He also feels it will be a major topic at the spring conference of Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties.

At the hearing, Howell gave an in-depth presentation of his vision, business goals and practices, as well as security measures and what benefits he felt his operation would bring to the community.

Had Howell’s request been approved, he would have been mandated to use the buildings already on-site, a shed and a steel Quonset.

The few other commercial operations around Canada are deemed closely monitored by Health Canada, and Howell’s would have been no exception.

Howell explained to the appeal board and landowners that if there were to be a diversion or suspected diversion of the marijuana the operation would be immediately shutdown. “Our entire operation, interior, exterior, is monitored.”

The monitoring would have been constant, 24 hours a day every day of the year. Canruderal would have been required to keep each recording for two years, which,   at the request of Health Canada, would have had to be produced for viewing on random demand. If a gap in the recording was found, the company would have been shut down. A break-in would also result in shutting down.

Howell isn’t yet in possession of a license to operate a commercial medical marijuana business, since a stipulation is a license must be attached to a location, but he’s in that process, too, with Health Canada.

In order to get this far in the process, Howell also had to pass a background check. He had a mug shot taken and fingerprints collected and passed through CESIS (Executive Committee for Intelligence and Security Services), RCMP, INTERPOL, FBI and CIA databases.

Ponoka Fire Department and RCMP detachment were also aware of Howell’s intent. “Currently, we have no concerns raised by the RCMP,” Howell said.

This wasn’t the case, however, with the approximately 35 nearby landowners who attended the appeal. They had many concerns, the most common revolving around security measures, increased traffic and medical marijuana staffing and the operations location.

“Security wise, this is a major concern for a lot of people . . . Health Canada also has the same concerns. There’s been a lot of problems with the previous regime, that’s why we’re moving to the new regime. And that has necessitated a lot of things we have to do,” said Howell.

The operation is mandated to have multiple levels of security measures. In place would have been intrusion detection systems with independent backup systems, a monitoring system that would notify proper authorities if any systems were tampered with, fencing, bollards, a double gate system, an 8,000 lb safe and a Sea-Can trailer that would be parked inside the Quonset for storage and another layer of protection.

“We have some criminals. We have people in this community who are going around, who are stealing quads, who are dumping them in ponds . . . We have criminals, they know where this operation is. You can be as secure as you want, you can put up the cameras, all I have to do is put a hood on my head,” said nearby landowner Debbi Raugust.

“My first reaction to hearing of the protection Mr. Howell’s site would receive from security guards, surveillance cameras, and we were told armed vehicles which would take the marijuana in and out of this facility was to say they were acknowledging that they expect trouble,” said Lois Sachs, who lives within a half mile of the proposed site.

“Our operation is fairly straightforward. We buy seed, we plant it. We use electricity, we use water and we use labour. At the end of the day the plant is harvested, dried and secured. And when we have that product finished and it’s ready for shipment we receive an order via the patient online,” explained Howell.

A shipment would be transported to a depot in Edmonton and sent to the customers through Canada Post using scent free packaging approximately every two weeks.

Howell assured the board and landowners that there would never be pickups and the only ones who would go to the operation would be staff. “If we do need staff, we have a way ensure that those staff members are brought on site in secure vans. We remove their cell phones from them.”

After the work is done staff are put back in the van and taken to a pick-up point outside and away from the community.

However, later in his presentation, Howell said Canada Post indicated they might make an exception to the pickup rule, resulting in one to two pickups per month.

The landowners were more concerned about the unwanted guests they felt the operation would attract, and with the heavy security measures, they believed discouraged criminals would turn to the less protected farms to vandalize and loot if they couldn’t reach the marijuana. “By protecting his operation Mr. Howell is putting the rest of us at a greater risk,” said Sachs.

“One of the main concerns is the security and I know you say you’ll have fantastic security, good for you . . . Who’s going to pay for my security of my family and my property,” added Karen Street.

The site was also near Crestomere School, which was a concern mentioned by multiple people in attendance, as at least one bus would drive by the site twice per day. “That’s the other thing, it’s not a school where the police are two minutes away,” said Raugust.

She feels such an operation should be located closer to an urban centre where emergency services could access it faster.

Sachs believes the business is not suitable for any rural community because of the criminal draw and distance from the RCMP. “We propose that this facility should be situated in an industrial area of a town so that the police and firefighters can immediately respond to any disruption.”

Landowners also felt Howell should have chosen a location closer to his home, which is two hours south of Ponoka, because he is a stranger to the community with no ties or cares to it other than his business. Most also believe with his business in the area, their land values would drop.

However, Howell felt his business would benefit the community and its people. One benefit he mentioned was the fact his operation was legal and monitored. He feels through commercial business the illegal operations can be extinguished. “We know a lot of them do unfortunately exist, and yes there is a certain criminal element to illegal grow operations.”

“We are quiet. No barking dogs or cattle, we’re not out in a field spreading manure. We’re not running heavy equipment or anything else like that,” he added.

Other benefits mentioned were the new jobs created, an increased tax base for the county and “cleaner” energy. “The fact that we use transformers, we do what we call clean up the power,” said Howell.

“I noticed there was a number of individuals that mentioned the problems with the flickering lights and flickering power. The upside of running the power throughout the facility is that we clean the power. We take the spikes out and we take the lows out,” he added.

With so much power running through the operation, there’s a vast increase in the potential for fire and with emergency services 23 km away the landowners reiterated their opinion that the location was not the place for Howell and his business.

“I think we stand by what we said in out letter. We don’t have a problem with an operation to grow medical marijuana. We still don’t believe this is the right location for it,” said Raugust.