Neighbors balk as legal marijuana gains ground in Sonoma County
David Drips has spent weeks tending cannabis seedlings and clones inside an old milking barn in rural Petaluma in preparation for the day he’d plant them in the ground.
On Friday, that day arrived. With a pending permit and county permission to start, he and several others nestled plant after plant into the loamy soil at the windswept Nadale Ranch on Middle 2 Rock Road, where they’ll grow alongside several hundred head of dairy cows.
But complaints against legal cannabis cultivation are mounting in some rural Sonoma County areas, from wooded enclaves west of Healdsburg to farmland outside Petaluma and narrow vineyard-lined lanes in rural Santa Rosa. Echoing concerns about traffic and water use often spurred by new wineries, critics of legal cannabis farms also question whether they will be safe living or working near marijuana farms.
“The wind will be our biggest obstacle, other than the public opinion of our industry,” Drips said. “But neither can’t be overcome.”
Yet local cultivators and out-of-town entrepreneurs seeking to take part in Sonoma County’s legal trade and broaden its farm-to-table ethos are colliding with neighborhood fears following several violent robberies linked to illicit marijuana. Property and zoning rights are pitted against safety concerns. Potential tax and other revenues are bumping up against fear of the illegal drug trade.
“There are high emotions on both sides of the debate,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes a rural Santa Rosa neighborhood where one of the robberies occurred in February. “You have cultivators doing things above board and they’re worried about losing their livelihoods. On the other hand, you have a mom worried about her children growing up smelling pot outside his bedroom. It’s a very emotional conversation right now.”
Concern for safety
A series of home-invasion robberies with out-of-state suspects coming to Sonoma County to steal marijuana, cash and guns have set some neighbors on edge. Robbers broke into five homes during the Feb. 8 and March 12 incidents, tying up residents and ransacking their homes. In one case, a man was killed and another man wounded by gunfire. The targets weren’t legal marijuana growers, according to investigators, but that brings little comfort to people uneasy about marijuana farms near their homes.
“We started to get worried,” said Steve Imbimbo, 59, a retired construction estimator who is trying to get the county to end cannabis cultivation in his remote community in the wooded hills west of Healdsburg. “What if guys come looking for it and come to our house instead? We see cars now up here we’ve never seen before.”
That frightening possibility has been present for years as marijuana has been a thriving, if underground, part of the regional economy. But now, residents have new avenues to object to cannabis operations in their midst.
Imbimbo and other rural residents who don’t want marijuana cultivation near their properties have started organizing. Their ranks include a group of property owners in a dairy region outside Petaluma near Drips who are demanding the county ban any outdoor cultivation and move it all indoors. Cannabis critics showed up at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting wearing red hats with the words “Save our Neighborhoods.”
Legitimate cannabis entrepreneurs are worried policies may be reversed after they’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into properties, permit fees and technical studies.
“We have an industry that is begging to be regulated, begging to be sunlighted, begging to contribute pretty exorbitant tax revenue,” said Erin Carlstrom, a lawyer and former Santa Rosa City Council member who currently represents cannabis companies coming into compliance.
The neighborhood controversies have led at least one county supervisor - David Rabbitt - to rethink whether the county should further limit cannabis cultivation and change the ordinance governing the newly regulated cannabis industry. The neighborhood controversies are likely to dominate an April 10 Board of Supervisors meeting, the first opportunity they will have to discuss at length how the ordinance appears to be functioning.
Rabbitt, whose southern district includes the Petaluma area where home invasions targeting marijuana occurred in March, said he’s interested in giving residents more ways to oppose cannabis projects and he prefers cultivation to be in warehouses, not outside.
“I know the industry says all these murders and home invasions are happening at illegal grows, but I believe it’s only a matter of time before it happens at legal grows,” Rabbitt said. “And I don’t know if a security plan will lower that risk to an acceptable level.”