Cobourg opts in for cannabis retailing...barely

By Cecilia Nasmith

Cobourg council did heed the near-consensus of the town's citizens – expressed both through an on-line survey and in-person presentations at a special meeting – not to opt out of retail cannabis sales, but the vote at Monday's committee-of-the-whole meeting was four to three.

Deputy Mayor Suzanne Seguin was joined by Mayor John Henderson and Councillor Emily Chorley in supporting her motion to have staff notify the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario that the town will not permit cannabis retail stores.

Henderson was eloquent in his opposition to opting in, largely based on how Ontario Premier Doug Ford has rolled out legalization in the province.

“The dynamics and information change monthly and, right now, I feel like we have got the cart in front of the horse. That's not how I expect this council to run, and yet that's how cannabis has come out,” the mayor said.

Though he accepts that Cobourg stands to benefit as an innovative community that is friendly to business, he noted, he cannot reconcile that with the lack of control the town will have over where such retail establishments can be set up.

This is administered through the commission with a prescribed 150-metre separation distance from schools, but no consideration for proximity to other establishments like day-care centres and services for special-needs populations. It will entertain comments in objection, but only those filed within 15 days.

“That would be of significant concern,” the mayor said.

“Normally, our planning department controls planning in the Town of Cobourg – in my nine years here, they have done a brilliant job. Under the Alcohol and Gaming Commission, we lose all right to our planning and development. We have no say in the building, no say in the operation, no say in how the building is maintained.

“At this point, I am not supportive because of the governance expectations Mr, Ford has for all municipalities, including ours.”

In any event, Henderson added, a town Cobourg's size is not even eligible for the upcoming lottery for the first 25 licensed cannabis stores.

“For me, the carrot is this council has the right to opt in at any time through resolution. I would like to learn from other municipalities our size what's working, what fears are being put to rest, what issues are you dealing with as a municipality.”

Because the town can opt back in at any time, Henderson said, the motion does not truly disregard the support of cannabis retailing that so many of its citizens have expressed. However, Councillors Aaron Burchat, Brian Darling, Nicole Beatty and Adam Bureau supported an opt-in status at this time – after all, Darling noted, it could be years down the road before such a store sets up business in town.

Darling also had a point about the revenue-sharing arrangement that the province will adhere to. As he explained it, 50% of all the province's proceeds above $100-million will be shared only with municipalities that had opt-in status as of the Jan. 22 deadline Ontario has set to offer municipalities the one-time-only opportunity to opt out.

Though he admitted concern with ceding virtually all planning authority in this area to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission, director of planning Glenn McGlashon said this kind of thing is not unprecedented. For example, the Liberal government that Ford defeated had the Green Energy Act, under which local planning decisions could not impact a green-energy project. Still, he did characterize the 15-day period for comment as an unusually tight time frame.

Henderson said about half of Ontario's municipalities had not made the opt-in-opt-out decision as yet, but he had researched what municipalities that are about Cobourg's size had made a decision. Among those opting in were the Town of Orangeville, the Town of Owen Sound, the Municipality of Leamington, the Town of Huntsville, the Municipality of Chatham and Kent, and – just up the road within Northumberland County – the Municipality of Trent Hills,

He is hoping for a chance to learn from these municipalities and, meanwhile, to join those that have opted out. This list includes the Municipality of Bluewater, the Town of Ingersoll, the City of Markham, the City of Mississauga, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Town of Wasaga Beach.

“We don't even have a bylaw for odour, we don't know the involvement of the health unit, we don't know the implications for enforcement,” Henderson said.

“It's already legal – those issues we will have to deal with, but I don't see any of those issues having any bearing on retail sales,” Darling countered.

“People are going to buy the product here or somewhere else, and all those issues are going to be there.”

In defeating the motion, Municipal Clerk Brent Larmer confirmed, the town would set its status as opting in.