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Council votes down cannabis zoning proposal

Fort St. John city council narrowly defeated Monday a proposal to allow cannabis retailers to operate outside the downtown core.

Fort St. John city council narrowly defeated Monday a proposal from city planners to allow cannabis retailers to open outside the downtown core.

The 3-3 split decision comes despite support for such a move from retailers who welcomed the proposal as a chance to grow their businesses.

Couns. Byron Stewart, Lilia Hansen, and Gord Klassen voted in favour of the proposal, however, Mayor Lori Ackerman and Couns. Tony Zabinsky and Jim Lequiere voted against.

Coun. Trevor Bolin was absent from the meeting and did not vote, and because the vote was a tie, a motion to allow planners to proceed with drafting bylaw amendments was defeated.

“We’re putting a lot of money into our downtown and that’s where I think these small [retailers] need to stay,” said Mayor Ackerman.

Retailers in the city have been limited to the downtown since cannabis was legalized in October 2018. Planners had proposed to permit stores on properties zoned for general or service commercial, which could have allowed them in places such as Totem Mall or along the Alaska Highway.

The city has been monitoring the roll out of retail cannabis since legalization, with a Jan. 10 council report noting it has so far had minimal impacts and been "indistinguishable from other forms of retail." Expanded zoning would “help promote economic growth” and give “entrepreneurs the ability to explore more locations based on the market,” planner Charlene Jackson explained in the report.

On Monday, Jackson added the city's planning department has received many inquiries since retail cannabis was first discussed as a legal land use, but “a lot of the interest, when it was consolidated just to the downtown core, disappeared," she said.

"There’s a lot of property owners in other areas that were interested in opening stores and they couldn’t do so because of the C-2 zoning restriction," said Jackson.

Darwin Lepine, owner of Cannabis Corner, was the first licensed retailer to open downtown in 2019, and says he has been limited in growing his business with the current zoning rules.

"We hope that eventually the North Peace area and the Alaska Highway will see the tourist traffic volume numbers that we use to see in this area prior to the Covid pandemic," Lepine wrote in a letter to council. 

"If we could expand to an area near the Alaska Highway, we could then accommodate larger vehicle combinations that include large motorhomes, camper trailers, boats, etc. These types of vehicles driven by people not familiar with this area are reluctant to travel to the downtown core."

Jack Hynes, owner of On the Rocks Liquor Stores, told council that two of his three stores are zoned for general and service commercial, and that expanded zoning would allow him to move forward with plans to open cannabis stores beside his liquor stores.

“Our stores would be modelled after the BC Provincial stores to be complementary businesses operating in close proximity with shared strategies, practices and operations servicing shared customers,” Hynes wrote to council. 

“The City of Fort St. John would benefit from opening other retail zones to permit Retail Cannabis Stores. The city must provide an environment that allows businesses to operate to the best of their abilities. Limiting recreational cannabis to the downtown core denies a key competitive element for these businesses: Location.”

According to Jackson’s report, neither the city’s bylaw and fire/protective services departments, nor the RCMP, reported issues or additional workloads since cannabis was legalized. The RCMP reported that motorists who have been stopped were "found to be transporting appropriately and were not impaired."

The school district also reported no issues, noting "cannabis use in its traditional forms by students or the public on their properties has been non-existent," according to Jackson’s report.

“I don’t see any issue in expanding the zoning for this retail sector within the community,” said Coun. Byron Stewart.

During the discussion with planners, Mayor Ackerman noted RCMP had also requested at the outset of legalization that stores not be allowed on the highway to ensure there were no impacts to their service, and said, “I would like to keep it that way.”

There are currently two private and one provincially-owned cannabis retailer operating downtown. A third private retailer had been open for a short period of time but later closed. Jackson noted provincial regulations mean retailers wait up to 18 months for licensing approval while paying rent on their property without revenues.

“That actually cratered one of the stores,” Jackson said.

Read the report to council below:

City of Fort St. John - Cannabis Monitoring Report for 2021 by AlaskaHighwayNews on Scribd

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