Don’t allow commercial or cottage cannabis cultivation in rural residential areas
By Craig S. Harrison and Kathleen Whitener
Zoning is a mechanism to protect residential areas from incompatible land uses. The proposed Cannabis Land Use Ordinance approved by the Planning Commission flunks zoning’s fundamental purpose (sonomacounty.ca.gov/CAO/Cannabis/Proposed-Cannabis-Ordinance/). Lucrative marijuana cultivation and commerce have long been associated with crime, as documented by periodic murder stories in our local newspapers. Pot farmers increasingly obscure their identity using deeds of trust to hide ownership in a secretive and dangerous cash lifestyle. They literally build high walls and undermine, rather than build, a community.
Bennett Valley had many methamphetamine laboratories in the 1980s. At least three residences were once purchased in foreclosures of properties that had been trashed by drug activities. Bennett Valley today is a fashionable area, but the quality of life and property values could plummet if commercial or cottage marijuana is allowed and associated criminal activity materializes.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will decide on Dec. 6 and 13 whether rural residential areas across Sonoma County are suitable for “cottage size” commercial cultivation. The pending proposal allows 500 square feet of home cultivation and one or more 2,500-square-foot greenhouses.
The county does not estimate the anticipated revenue from this level of commercial activity, and no data is available from federal or state authorities because few report their income or pay taxes on it. No wonder pot farmers have plenty of money to lobby for loose regulations. An estimate is needed to assess whether pot farms might attract well-armed criminals intent on stealing a valuable crop or the cash that it generates.
A 2,500-square-foot greenhouse, which is bigger than many homes in Sonoma County, can generate millions of dollars of cannabis revenue per year. Because there was no county estimate, we did one. In late October the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a marijuana plant is worth $1,000 to $9,000, depending upon the skill of the grower. Grower websites say that indoor plants can be grown at a density of one plant per square foot with up to five crops per year. Using conservative inputs of $1,500 per plant, 1,000 plants per greenhouse and a single annual crop, $1.5 million is generated. The reader can vary these inputs and get different estimates, but clearly this is a huge cash business.
The expedited regulatory process has caught many of our neighbors by surprise. The background materials omit any studies of the effects on neighborhoods in Oregon, Colorado or elsewhere when commercial marijuana is grown. Workforce housing is increasingly a problem in Sonoma County but no one has analyzed how much is being lost to marijuana production. In the absence of a full environmental impact report addressing these issues, the ordinance is ripe for challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Many believe that the price of marijuana will fall with legalization, which has happened to some degree in Colorado. Over the long run, prices may become so low that the motivation for theft or even commercial production may vanish, but as the economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote, “Over the long run, we are all dead.” In the here and now, rural residents are terrified for good reason about having a grow house pop up next door and what may happen “eventually” is irrelevant to our lives.
We urge all supervisors to oppose allowing commercial and cottage cannabis operations in rural residential areas. The county could follow the lead of the cities of Sonoma and Windsor and adopt a moratorium. Why not slow down and let Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties be guinea pigs for this dangerous experiment forced on rural residents? Please contact Supervisor Gorin (Susan.Gorin@sonoma.county.org) and sign the online petition (www.tiny.cc/responsible-growing) to protect our rural neighborhoods.
Craig S. Harrison is a retired lawyer who lives in Bennett Valley. Kathleen Whitener lives in west Santa Rosa, is a retired logistics manager and a spokesperson for Sonoma County Residents for Responsible Cannabis Growing.
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