County cannabis land use rules slog ahead
Building an airplane while it’s in the air.
That’s the turn of phrase many use to describe the ongoing development of the county’s cannabis ordinance, rolled out at the end of 2016 after California voters approved adult recreational use throughout the state. It’s been a bumpy ride ever since.
In mid-October, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors finalized the latest set of amendments to the ordinance, much of these having to do with a basic land use question – where is it, and where is it not, appropriate to grow commercial cannabis?
The create-the-rules-as-you-go method of dealing with cultivation has left many people unhappy, from growers who say the particulars for permitting keep shifting, to neighborhood groups who say the county has failed to adequately deal with their concerns, such as enforcement of current regulations, odor control, safety, and environmental impacts.
When the supervisors took a first swing at the land use question nearly two years ago, they banned any cultivation on 34,000 parcels in the county zoned RR (rural residential) and AR (agricultural residential).
Then, at an Oct. 16 meeting, the board decided that of the remaining zoning areas where outdoor cannabis cultivation is still allowed (with permits), a minimum lot size of 10 acres will be required for new applications, thus taking another 5,000 parcels out of the mix.
“Will the small craft farmers ever get a break?” asked Alexa Wall at the Oct. 16 hearing. Wall, the president of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, and a member of the county’s Cannabis Advisory Group, criticized the cost and length of time of the permit process, which she said has forced some into financial collapse and to drop out of the county permit process.
One of the goals of the county setting up a permit system was to bring the many cannabis cultivators in unincorporated Sonoma County into the regulatory fold, estimated at over 3,000 growers before the ordinance was passed. Only a small percentage have opted to jump into the permit process.
To date, 26 cannabis-related permits have been approved, with five of these being dispensaries. 146 applications are pending.
District 1, which includes Sonoma Valley and Bennett Valley, has a little over 20 percent of the county’s applications, with the bulk in West County.
At the Oct. 16 hearing, supervisors continued to tweak the ordinance to provide incentives for growers to apply for permits, such as allowing cultivation, with a use permit, to be sited within the normally required 1,000-foot setbacks from a public park, if certain conditions are met.
The supervisors also extended the life of a use permit from one to five years, and allowed 25 percent more cultivation area on properties with use permits. In addition, “centralized processing” on a certain number of ag lands was approved, activities that include drying, curing, trimming, and storing and packaging of non-manufactured cannabis.
At the hearing, supervisors pledged to neighborhood representatives that overconcentration and neighborhood compatibility issues will be dealt with in “Phase II” of cannabis rule-making. This process is expected to take up to one and half years, much to the chagrin of neighborhood groups who have raised multiple objections since the original ordinance was adopted.
“I know the neighborhood groups have provided all sorts of documentation and information about their concerns and issues, and ways to remediate,” said Brantly Richardson, a Bennett Valley resident. “To me it’s evident that the staff has no interest in pushing ahead with neighborhood compatibility issues…I don’t think we need to wait another year and a half to settle these issues.”
The Bennett Valley area has been a particular hotbed for complaints filed with the county over cannabis cultivation, ranging from ongoing code violations to not having the necessary state licenses to legally sell cannabis.
Countywide, since the beginning of 2017, 731 cannabis complaints have been lodged, with county code enforcement staff shutting down 684 properties. Of the 49 remaining, according to code enforcement staff, 25 are pending site visits, and 24 are under the county’s Penalty Relief Program (PRP), a program the county uses to allow applicants to continue operations while working in good faith to complete their permit requirements.
Some neighbors of marijuana grows see the PRP as enabling some growers to enjoy the benefits of a harvest while continuing to commit multiple code violations without any serious consequences.
“The way I see it, said Richardson in an interview regarding the county’s cannabis program, “the basic problem has been a group of operators in locations that never should have been allowed, or operations run by scofflaws. I would like to assume that a great number of operators are not a problem or concern to neighbors. It has been the county’s reluctance to abate the bad situations promptly that has resulted in all the uproar.” Richardson serves as a neighborhood representative on the Cannabis Advisory Group.
Tim Ricard, the county’s Cannabis Program Manager, told the supervisors that county staff will do a thorough review of compatibility and concentration issues, and come back with ideas and proposals.
“Applications, no matter where they are, can be controversial,” said Ricard in an interview. “Even small-scale proposals are a controversial land use… We’re doing our best and feel we are slowly getting our arms around it.”