Sonoma County tried to coax cannabis operators into stepping forward early and applying for local permission to do business with the promise of reduced land-use fines.
But with the Aug. 31 deadline to avoid those costly penalties just one week away, the county has received a paltry number of applications from cannabis businesses seeking to legitimize their operations. Since July, 33 cannabis businesses have applied to do business in Sonoma County, including 21 outdoor cultivators, a number dwarfed by the estimated 5,000 marijuana farmers already operating.
“It’s a trickle when we were expecting an avalanche,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “We want people out of the shadows and into a regulated market, so I absolutely support extending the penalty relief program.”
The county interest is also overshadowed by the thousands of cannabis farmers who have applied to do business across California’s Emerald Triangle marijuana growing region, where upwards of 3,000 cannabis farmers have stepped forward to do business in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.
Sonoma County began accepting applications from cannabis businesses on July 5, and from the first day the interest wasn’t as much as predicted.
But county officials said they expected a rush of applications to come before the Aug. 31 deadline, the last day existing operators can avoid paying certain penalties. There’s no deadline to apply for a permit, which must be renewed each year, but a local permit in hand will give operators an advantage next year when the state begins issuing cannabis business licenses.
The state has said it will give priority to those who already have acquired a local permit to do business.
Also at stake is the business tax revenue the county is projected to receive from cannabis operators. County staff estimated that $3.8 million in tax revenue could come in from cannabis businesses by June 2018.
Industry leaders are urging the county to extend the deadline, and about a half-dozen people at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting urged the board to extend the Aug. 31 deadline as well.
“It’s the most urgent matter I’ve seen before the Board of Supervisors,” said Craig Litwin, a former mayor of Sebastopol and cannabis industry consultant. “The financial implications are severe for the farmers.”
Billed as an incentive program, Sonoma County’s temporary penalty relief program, in effect until the Aug. 31 deadline, works by removing certain fines for land-use violations that apply to any cannabis business already in operation.
At a minimum, the penalty fees could triple the cost of getting a permit, and at most they could multiply the cost by ten times, according to permit department staff.
The basic fee to apply for a permit is between $2,000 and $13,000, depending on the project’s size and scope.
One of the biggest hurdles for applicants is the number of supplementary reports they must acquire from consultants, from hazardous materials and energy use plans to groundwater and air quality studies.
Tawnie Logan, chairwoman of the board for the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, said she knows about 30 entities that hoped to make the Aug. 31 deadline but will be unable to pull together the variety of reports required in time.