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Edmonton Modernizes Brewery Zoning Laws

Late on Monday night Edmonton City Council passed bylaw changes that will make more city districts available for breweries (as well as wineries and distilleries). The bylaw roughly parallels (in intent, not language) a recent bylaw change in Calgary that appears to have helped nudge the exploding local beer scene down there (read here for details on Calgary).

Up until this week, officially breweries were only permitted to operate in industrial zones. This rule is a throwback to when the AGLC required all breweries have a minimum capacity of 5,000 HL, meaning they were relatively larger operations.

The consequence of this policy is that breweries were forced to open in areas where there is basically no foot traffic. Think about Alley Kat’s location for a minute. Some breweries, like Yellowhead and Situation, were able to finagle their way around the rules, but that was exhausting and, frankly, unbalanced.

Briefly, the new rules make breweries, distilleries and wineries a “discretionary” use in commercial zones, including Whyte Avenue (which has a moratorium on new bars). They limit the size of the public (non-brewing) space to 80 square metres (about 860 square feet), but will allow pints, food, off-sales and private function rooms. They can also have a patio if it doesn’t affect residential property. Residential zoning remains off-limits (understandably).

I want to pause briefly and explore the consequences of the decision. The City has decided not to make a brewery an accepted use in commercial zones, but instead a “discretionary” use. In the documents supporting the motion, the City officials say that classifying breweries as discretionary is “the recommended method for managing a complex use that can occur in a variety of sizes, zones and contexts, with as few regulations as possible. As a discretionary use, the Development Officer is able to apply policy and discretion, and avoids the need for complex rules to manage a variety of scenarios.”

While I do get what they are saying – every brewery application will be different, requiring a case-by-case approach – I do get a bit nervous leaving the approval process in the hands of the development officer. I am not touting some anti-government hysteria theory here. I just know how these things work. Every officer approaches their job differently. One officer might be fine with a particular application while a similar project could be denied by a different officer.

I don’t want to make too much of this. I trust over time officers will work out a common strategy for handling brewery applications, but there will be some early bumps and I am concerned for those first brave few who try to test out the new rules.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is a smart approach to the issue. Better to allow flexible responses then bog everyone down with a long list of rigid rules. But no policy is perfect. Just pointing out the downsides.

Overall, I am thrilled this policy passed. It may seem like a small thing – zoning blah blah blah and all that – but I believe it is the municipal equivalent of the AGLC’s removal of the minimum capacity rule. It just opens up so many doors to people contemplating a brewery.

I could be wrong but I predict in the next two to three years, Edmonton will see a quick expansion of the number of breweries. That was starting to happen anyway, but this new policy will help accelerate the process.

Good job, City Council! Get cracking, aspiring brewery owners!

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