Sidney is moving ahead with plans to ban cannabis stores on its main shopping street after denying the first-ever application for such a business, despite an outpouring of support from the business community and others.
Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith joined Couns. Barbara Fallot, Terri O’Keeffe, and Chad Rintoul in denying the application from Happy Buddha Cannabis, which was planning to open a shop in the 2400-block of Beacon Avenue. Their votes also pushed through plans for a bylaw amendment banning pot stores on Beacon Avenue less than three months after council had approved such stores along Sidney’s main shopping street. Council’s vote for the recommendation now triggers a public hearing.
Couns. Sara Duncan, Scott Garnett and Peter Wainwright voted against the recommended amendment. This trio also supported the application from Happy Buddha Cannabis.
These votes took places after council received input from the public with proponents outweighing opponents by a margin of 9-3. More than 90 per cent of emails to council also favoured the application according to Duncan.
The fate of the application from the would-be business hinged on reconciling two contrary requirements. While the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCRB) requires opaque window coverings, Sidney’s development permit guidelines require active — transparent windows — for Beacon Avenue.
Cindy Pendergast — one of the two entrepreneurs behind Happy Buddha Cannabis along with Brad Styles — told council Monday that the LCRB had approved what she called a “live window” consisting of various plants. “To paraphrase, a Seinfeld episode, they are real and spectacular,” she said. Sidney staff acknowledged LCRB’s preliminary approval of the proposed solution but added nothing had fundamentally changed.
Fallot said her opposition to the proposed store is neither about its merits nor about cannabis.
“This is about the look of downtown Beacon Avenue [as] an active and vibrant storefront,” she said. “I appreciate wholeheartedly your efforts to create a green wall in the window. Unfortunately, what I see is still a static display. It is not an active display.”
Duncan, however, disagreed. “This clearly is not about the active storefront,” she said. “This is about sticking to a preconceived idea about how businesses should be behaving.”
Councillors also clashed over the question of whether Sidney has been fair in its dealings with the applicants and what sort of message Sidney’s denial of the application will send to the larger business community.
Wainwright said Sidney has not been fair towards the applicants because staff, as well as councillors, had initially misunderstood LCRB’s requirements concerning opaque window coverings when they approved pot stores on Beacon Avenue in August following a public hearing. While he acknowledged that new information had come forward after the public hearing, it is still Sidney’s mistake.
“To me, the issue of unfairness is, we made a mistake, we expect them to pay for it,” he said. “They are the ones on the hook for the cost, and we are changing the rules. We are changing the rules because of a mistake in understanding. I understand that we can change the rules, but to me, it is pretty clear that it was our mistake and we are expecting them to pay for it.”
The public heard earlier that Pendergast and Styles had already spent approximately $40,000 to get the application to this point.
“What would be fair is to say, ‘we made a mistake, we are going to process your application, but no more, they won’t be any others [on Beacon Avenue],’” Wainwright said.
Rintoul noted the applicants always knew council had the final word. This said, Rintoul said he was prepared to table the application in supporting Wainright, who had argued Sidney first resolve the larger question on allowing pot stores on Beacon Avenue.
While Duncan praised Wainwright’s proposal, she questioned whether pot stores on Beacon Avenue would actually get a fair hearing from parts of council regardless of the feedback in favour of pot stores on Beacon Avenue.
“I really don’t see the point of going through the Kangaroo court process again,” she said, having noted earlier 81 out of 85 emails commenting on the proposal had been in favour of it.
McNeil-Smith disagreed. “I would like to stress that I think myself and from what I have heard from a number of councillors, that we have listened to the public,” he said. “People in the community are firmly on both sides of the issue. All of the information [concerning opaque windows] was not out there.”
McNeil-Smith added he fully expects a cannabis retail location to open in downtown Sidney within a year. “It is a case of us going through the process and decision making,” he said.
But Garnett was not so sure. “This sends a really bad message by denying it,” he said. Sidney ultimately faces a choice if it wants to attract business and improve the vibrancy of downtown, he added. “Is an empty storefront better than an opaque storefront?”
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