Narrow planning commissioners vote calls for a more comprehensive environmental impact study
Plans of the Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors to streamline the permitting process for commercial cannabis cultivation may be headed for a detour following a close Sonoma County Planning Commission vote held last week that is recommending a “more comprehensive update” in conjunction with a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR.) If approved by the supervisors, the EIR process could take more than a year to complete, several attendees of the April 15 commission session predicted.
New cannabis permits can still be filed under current rules included in the older 2018 ordinance while the supervisors consider their next steps, but there is already a large backlog of pending applications.
Last week’s planning commission action follows two years of county staff work and monitoring by a supervisor’s cannabis ad hoc committee (led by Supervisors James Gore and Lynda Hopkins) seeking to replace lengthy public review and planning commission hearings with a “ministerial” process led by the county’s agricultural commissioner’s office.
That goal was also stymied when the planning commission voted 3-2 to not classify cannabis operations as “agriculture” and “agricultural use” and to vacate earlier recommendations to include a broader General Plan update. Defining cannabis as a crop would better support the streamlined permitting process sought by the ad hoc committee and others.
A public hearing in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on the updated ordinance is tentatively scheduled for May 18. The April 15 commission resolution was introduced by commissioner Cam Mauritson and supported by Lawrence Reed and Gina Belforte. It was opposed by chair Greg Carr and member Pam Davis. Reed said he favored the motion to “try to get relief to small growers” while a new EIR process proceeds. Davis said she was “not totally comfortable” with the proposals and favored designating cannabis as an “ag activity.”
The current cannabis ordinance has led to long and expensive delays for growers and has thwarted the county’s efforts to bring more illegal cannabis operations into compliance. Would-be rural neighbors have repeatedly testified and opposed new cannabis operations, citing safety concerns, impacts to their rural neighborhoods and harmful impacts to water supplies, skunk-like pot odors and impacts to property values.
Participants on all sides of the commercial cannabis issue complain the current permitting process is full of contradictory rules, weak definitions and inconsistencies with state cannabis laws. Some attendees to last week’s Planning Commission virtual session are saying the most recent vote makes matters worse.
“We think it is logical to not consider cannabis as ag,” said Debbie Eppstein, a rural resident with multiple cannabis operations on her road. “But what’s completely illogical is to base these actions on a totally flawed Mitigated Negative Declaration that violates CEQA.” (CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act that requires a comprehensive study of all potential impacts a proposed land use project that a majority of planning commissioners are now endorsing.)
“We think the EIR makes sense, but right now there are still too many restrictions,” said Ron Ferarro, owner of Elyon Cannabis, a vertical cannabis company with local growers’ contracts, processing facilities and online cannabis marketing services. “We think cannabis should be treated like other agriculture,” he said. Ferarro also said he liked the original ordinance updates first circulated in February but he thinks the county has since been influenced by “fear mongering” from would-be rural neighbors and organized neighborhood groups such as Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods.
Other changes endorsed by the commissioners last week lengthened some property line setbacks to 400 feet for cannabis cultivation when next to residential zoned properties. Sensitive to water usage and recurring drought conditions, the update now prohibits grow projects in Groundwater Availability Zones 3 and 4. The document requires complete odor mitigation for indoor grows but does not regulate odors for outdoor grows.
The cannabis cultivation debate in Sonoma County is being echoed in adjacent counties including Napa and Mendocino with different outcomes. Napa County supervisors have bent to their wine industry’s wishes and have banned all outdoor cultivation. In the more rural and rugged region of Mendocino County, supervisors and the county sheriff are seeking stronger enforcement measures against large illegal grows.
There is no single vision or closely aligned sets of outcomes that might currently point to Sonoma County’s cannabis future. Personal use and commercial cannabis operations were approved by California voters in 2016. For many decades, Sonoma County has been the site of thousands of smaller pot farms, hidden indoor grows and, more recently, the first legally-approved commercial operations. Sonoma County is also home to testing labs, factory-like processing operations and some large indoor grows in former warehouses.
Ferarro and similar small to mid-size growers prefer “mixed light” cultivation in hoop houses or temporary greenhouses. Not all operations use artificial light and most of the cultivation is done in large pots of soil with drip-tube watering.
The updated ordinance requires all commercial cannabis cultivation to be located in agricultural or rural resource zoned properties of at least 10 acres. Grow areas would be limited to one acre on parcels under 20 acres and 10% of the land on larger parcels.
“We think there are too many discretionary issues to satisfy a ministerial permit process,” said Eppstein. “There is a total lack of standards and consistencies in too many places.”