New law puts 3,000 Sonoma County cannabis cultivators in jeopardy
The fate of several thousand Sonoma County marijuana growers hangs in the balance this year, their businesses caught between an emergent industry sanctioned by state voters at the ballot box in 2016 and a new local law that bans commercial cultivation in large swaths outside city limits.
The conflict has shaken pot growers, who face a stark choice: Move out of the affected residential zones under county control or hunker down in place and hope authorities don’t catch up with them.
The legal shift - approved in December by the Board of Supervisors and favored by many rural residents but strongly opposed by cannabis growers - could confound the county’s attempts to bring the once-outlaw industry into compliance.
At stake are thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in tax revenue and the success of regulations meant to ensure public safety, safeguard the environment and shield rural neighborhoods that county officials say aren’t suited to pot cultivation for profit.
Advocates say the growers, many of them small “mom and pop” operators who are not wealthy, have few options, with the escalating cost of local land a barrier to relocation.
“There’s no path forward for them,” said Erin Carlstrom, a Santa Rosa attorney and former city councilwoman whose firm represents about 50 cultivators. “This is causing a lot of anxiety.”
County code enforcement efforts have already begun against medical pot cultivators whose operations do not conform with the zoning law that took effect last month.
“They know, they know,” said Tennis Wick, the county planning director whose department handles code enforcement. “We are pursuing complaints now.”
The initial enforcement action stems from complaints against 15 to 20 commercial growing operations in single-family homes. They are illegal throughout the county’s jurisdiction and “tend to have the greatest community impact,” Wick said.
Wick declined to elaborate on the county’s strategy, but said enforcement will include unauthorized outdoor pot gardens after planting season arrives.
“We don’t want to tell the bad guys when we’re coming,” he said.
The new zoning rules amounted to a homegrown prohibition for an estimated 3,000 growers in rural neighborhoods surrounding the county’s nine cities, who were effectively outlawed under the county’s Medical Cannabis Land Use Ordinance on Jan. 19.
Some of those growers may be able to operate until the end of the year, but the zoning law limits cultivation to the county’s agricultural, industrial and resources zones, excluding the 31,383 land parcels in the county’s two rural residential zones.
The law took shape through heavy input from the industry, but the Board of Supervisors sided with many rural residents who have decried the impact of pot operations on their neighborhoods.
Bennett Valley homeowners Nancy and Brantly Richardson said they have seen at least three homes in their subdivision converted to pot growing operations behind tall fences. Their neighborhood was a magnet for indoor marijuana cultivation, they said, with homes on an acre or less with detached garages or outbuildings.
The result was “heartbreaking,” said Nancy Richardson.
But Craig Litwin, a consultant to cannabis organizations and former Sebastopol councilman, said that while he appreciates the county’s move to bring the marijuana industry under the law, “they have thrown the small grower under the bus.”
“I’ve talked to many of them,” Litwin said. “There’s a real fear for their families; how they’re going to put food on the table.”
Cultivators who can’t obtain a county permit “will be stuck in the black market,” he said.
Growers themselves are laying low at this point, fearful of being raided by law enforcement at a time when they are still in a legally tenuous position, said Tawnie Logan, executive director of the 260-member Sonoma County Growers Alliance. None would step forward last week to speak about the quandary they face.
“I don’t need to paint a target on my back,” Logan quoted a grower as saying.
Small growers have little chance to buy land in a competitive, all-cash market short on land where cultivation is allowed, said Timothy Hedges, a Santa Rosa real estate broker.
Hedges said he helped one group buy a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Santa Rosa that cost more than $1.1 million. With cheaper land in rural neighborhoods off limits, the outlook for small pot growers “is not good,” he said.
Former County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the lone board member last year who clearly supported cultivation in residential zones, called the decision to ban pot growing in those areas a mistake. Carrillo, who left the board in December, initially saw the county’s regulatory effort as an open door.