Sonoma County supervisors voiced support Tuesday for striking a delicate balance between two rival factions — marijuana farmers and neighborhood groups — in an increasingly contentious local debate about where cannabis cultivation belongs outside city limits.
Board members signaled they intend to find ways to shield concerned neighbors from cannabis operations without stifling the emerging industry’s hold in Sonoma County. The direction came during a five-hour hearing before a standing-room-only crowd, the first full discussion about the county’s cannabis ordinance since it was enacted more than a year ago.
“We talk about where we don’t want people to grow,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “We should also talk about where we want them to (grow), and what can we do to make that more attractive.”
About 200 people showed up to the study session with supervisors, filling the seats, aisles and hallway. Pro-cannabis supporters wore green hats that read “Support local farmers.” Neighbors opposed to marijuana cultivation wore red hats with the slogan “Save our Sonoma neighborhoods.”
Supervisors made no decisions during the study session about the county’s cannabis ordinance, enacted in December 2016, but they directed staff to look into areas where the rules can be changed.
The county has allowed cannabis cultivation on agricultural parcels but banned it in rural residential areas, including many properties where marijuana was long grown. The regulation forced many operations to move and spurred conflicts with new neighbors.
All five supervisors agreed neighborhood safety was paramount, underscored by a recent set of violent home-invasion robberies with assailants seeking marijuana, cash and guns — cases that have spiked fears that regulated cannabis farms will attract crime because of pot’s high-dollar value on the East Coast.
But county supervisors stopped short of suggesting drastic changes such as banning cultivation in additional zoning districts or relegating it to industrial warehouses.
A compromise in Sonoma County could include giving concerned residents greater opportunities to appeal a cannabis cultivation permit in neighborhoods where water resources may be scarce or homes too close.
Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said he wants the board to revisit the ban on cultivation in rural residential areas, with an eye on whether some operations might be appropriate on larger parcels.
“We have to figure out where this green rush goes in Sonoma County,” Gore said.
Rabbitt, meanwhile, suggested extending the life of cannabis business permits, which are only good for one year. That would give existing operations greater business stability.
Any changes would take months. A next step will be for county staff to research the board’s suggestions, which also included whether to allow multiple farmers to have plots on large parcels.
A majority of the board — Lynda Hopkins, Susan Gorin, Shirlee Zane and Gore — indicated support for allowing recreational cannabis production in the county.
Currently, commercial production is limited to medical marijuana business activities. Rabbitt said he wanted to deal first with neighbors’ concerns.
About two dozen audience members addressed the board. Windsor-area neighbors Greg Dexter and Carrol Estes spoke about their deeply held objections to a cannabis farm near them on Leslie Road and the potential for greater traffic, additional water use and crime. Dexter asked his lawyer to speak to the board about the legal case they’re making for marijuana to be banned along the rural lane east of Windsor.