Vanastra cannabis facility moving ahead, though not finally approved, despite objections
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
A new cannabis production facility in Vanastra is moving ahead, though not yet approved, after a lengthy discussion by Huron East Council and notable opposition from Vanastra community members.
The Oud brothers - Jason, Stephen and Andrew - are behind the new facility, which is proposed to be housed at the Radome, a heritage structure that served as a RADAR training site during the Second World War. While the Ouds own the structure, they will be renting it to a tenant for personal-use cannabis production (with a medicinal marijuana licence as opposed to a commercial facility with a licence administered by Health Canada).
As the owners of Vanastra Packaging, Jason Oud said the family has been “good corporate citizens” in the community for over 20 years, giving back to Vanastra and playing an active role in its resurgence in recent years. However, there was great opposition to the project in the form of both written concerns and lively debate at the public meeting, held virtually on May 4.
First, Huron County Planner Laura Simpson detailed the project for those in attendance, saying it would be situated just 30 metres from the Vanastra Curling Club. This is incompatible with a special bylaw passed by Huron East in 2019 to govern cannabis production facilities, which says facilities with a proper ventilation system need to be 150 metres from sensitive facilities like recreation centres, parks and homes. Without ventilation, facilities have to be 300 metres from such structures, according to the bylaw.
Simpson did say, however, that in her view, the variance is minor in nature. She also noted that the Ouds had enlisted the services of Biorem Technologies for air treatment and ventilation and that their plan had been reviewed by a third party, as per Huron East’s bylaw. Phil Girard, president of PG Compliance Management Inc. conducted that review and said the project could move forward, though it was important that an odour management plan be regularly monitored, maintained over time and that any citizen complaints be thoroughly investigated.
Simpson also noted that over the course of the public consultation period, 20 letters of opposition were received, as was one letter of support. Many of the concerns pertained to odour in the village, allegations of which is something the village has been tangling with due to two other private cannabis growing facilities for several years.
Simpson didn’t necessarily recommend approval, but she did suggest that council pass first and second reading of the minor variance bylaw, but hold off on passing a third and confirmatory reading until a more detailed odour management plan is submitted, reviewed and approved by council.
Derek Webb, an engineer and president and CEO of Biorem, attended the meeting to explain the air treatment system, saying his company has been mitigating odour in southwestern Ontario for 30 years, first with rendering, deadstock, solid waste and wastewater facilities, and now, increasingly, with cannabis production facilities.
For the Ouds’ building, Webb said he proposed the installation of an emission stack on the roof of the facility, as opposed to the side. However, it’s inside the building, he said, that most of the work would be done. The system would employ an adsorbent system that would remove over 99 per cent of odour from the air before it even reaches the stack. As a result, the air coming from the facility would emit 0.48 odour units per cubic metre, which is extremely low and well beneath the provincial guidelines.
For comparison’s sake, he said, a simple household barbecue cooking hamburgers would be emitting hundreds of odour units. The smell of grass from a freshly-cut lawn, he said, would likely be over 100 odour units per cubic metre.
He also said that a similar system had recently been installed at a cannabis production facility in Guelph and had been working well. Furthermore, he said he personally lives 300 metres from a wastewater facility using one of his company’s systems and there are no concerns, so he is putting his money where his mouth is.
The system, he said, utilizes a carbon-like adsorbent made of virgin coconut shells that are heated and turned to coals. They are then utilized to pull odour out of the air, treating it before it’s released outside of the building.
When those coals are spent, he said, they will likely be disposed of at a local landfill and classified as non-hazardous waste. The amount of waste that will be generated, he said, will be minimal, likely equating to less than 12 cubic metres over the course of two years (or perhaps one year, in the worst-case scenario).
Jason Oud then spoke to his and his brothers’ commitment to Vanastra and their good corporate citizenship. Their track record over 20 years in the community, he said, speaks for itself and to conflate their project with two other troublesome operations in the community would be unfair.
He also said that, as current business owners in Vanastra, it wouldn’t be in their best interests to do anything that would harm the community, its people or property values, as it would only be harming themselves as well.
Oud also detailed the operation, saying it would employ three full-time and 10 part-time employees, as well local contractors. In addition, the Ouds have proposed a community fund associated with the project to funnel money back into the community.
With over a dozen members of the public on the Zoom meeting, the Ouds, Webb and council fielded questions for well over two hours pertaining to the proposal.
Lorne Koch, president of the Vanastra Curling Club, said he was concerned about the building’s air conditioning unit sucking in air being expelled from the new operation. However, when Webb explained the low odour units, Koch said he was satisfied and wasn’t one to stand in the way of a new business.
Resident Philip Stelzer was also concerned with odours, but his main point was that he and other Vanastra residents felt council had abandoned them.
Stelzer said council passed the bylaw in 2019 to prevent exactly what the Ouds were proposing, so, if it were to go ahead, many residents would feel as though council betrayed them.
Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan pushed back on Stelzer’s characterization of the situation, saying council passed the bylaw to have a say in the development of cannabis production facilities and to be involved in the planning process, not necessarily to say no to everything proposed.
Another resident, who said she lived in Vanastra but worked elsewhere, said the prevailing feeling about the community is that it’s becoming “Pot Paradise” to the outside world. After years of trying to rehabilitate the community’s image, she said, the existing operations are damaging any progress that had been made.
Eddie Stilwell, another resident, was very critical of the current air quality in Vanastra, saying the Ouds’ project would only serve to make it worse. He said the two existing operations produce such intense odour pollution that often the air quality outside is better than that inside his house, where it gets trapped and can’t escape.
He also said that while the business is technically legal, it’s “not moral”, though he said that didn’t mean that the Ouds aren’t moral.
Stilwell was also critical of council’s lack of attention to Vanastra, chalking it up to no councillors living in the community. Even the councillors from the Tuckersmith ward, he said, don’t live in Vanastra, making it hard to find a sympathetic ear on council.
MacLellan stepped in again, saying it was unfair to criticize the Ouds for projects proceeding theirs with which they had no association.
He also said that council had been working hard to take the other two operations to task, but that it’s a problem throughout the province that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many operations, he said, will set up, not obey any bylaws, but then produce marijuana for as long as they can while the case winds its way through the court system. Often, it can take up to three years for a verdict to be reached, he said, at which point, a business has made so much money that it will just move on and start over again.
Those operations, however, have nothing to do with what the Ouds were proposing. By working with the municipality, he said, and implementing an air treatment system, it showed they wanted to create a project that would be compatible with the surrounding community.
Oud echoed MacLellan’s statement, pledging to the community in the meeting that members had their assurance that everything would be above-board and in compliance. If not, he said, the tenant would be promptly evicted.
Later in the meeting, council discussed the project with Councillor Ray Chartrand beginning, saying he didn’t think council should support it.
With council placing a provision of a 150-metre setback in its bylaw, he didn’t see why council would approve a project that’s 30 metres from a recreational facility and under 115 metres from homes.
He said the bylaw was put in place to protect the residents of Vanastra and all of Huron East, so if it wasn’t being followed, it didn’t make much sense.
Councillors Joe Steffler and Zoellyn Onn both spoke in favour of the project.
Steffler looked to the Ouds’ reputation in the community, while Onn said the Ouds didn’t have to go above and beyond as they have for the project, which shows they’re willing to do whatever it takes to be good neighbours with their new project.
Chartrand pushed back, however, saying that the vote had to do with allowing a cannabis production facility to operate in Vanastra, not a referendum on the Ouds and their status in the community.
“They are great citizens. We’re not voting on their integrity, we’re voting on the bylaw we passed,” Chartrand said.
Steffler disagreed, however, saying that a vote against the project was a vote calling the Ouds’ integrity into question.
As the final vote approached, councillors were concerned about voting against a project that the Huron County Planning and Development Department supported, with MacLellan concerned about the municipality finding itself embroiled in a Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) hearing as a result, and losing.
Simpson said council would have to defend its position if that were the case. However, if council were to approve the first and second readings of the bylaw and accept the odour plan, and then deny it, it would be even more difficult to justify denial with one more supporting document in place.
Deputy-Mayor Bob Fisher said he felt council should listen to the residents on this project. Ninety-five per cent of the correspondence received, he said, strongly objected to the project. That, he said, could be assumed to be representative of the entire community and Vanastra residents know the Ouds to be good corporate citizens, and they’re still not in favour.
Councillor Alvin McLellan also raised the issue of enforcement, concerned there would be no way to ensure the Ouds’ facility was keeping up with its emission targets. However, the Ouds said testing and air treatment will be tied to the lease, so it will be up to them as the owners and the municipality to enforce odour complaints.
Chartrand made a motion to deny the minor variance application, essentially killing the project, but that motion was defeated. Chartrand, Fisher and McLellan voted against the project, while Mayor MacLellan and Councillors Steffler, Onn, Larry McGrath, John Lowe, Gloria Wilbee, Dianne Diehl and Brenda Dalton all voted in favour.
Council then put forward the reverse motion, to approve the project, and it passed, seeing the first and second bylaw readings move ahead.
Third reading and final approval of the project will come forward at a future meeting after the Ouds submit a odour management plan.