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Protesters decry cannabis farms ahead of Sonoma County supervisors hearing

Board of Supervisors meeting

When: 8:30 a.m. Tuesday*

How to watch or participate: Visit sonoma-county.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx for instructions on the livestream and Zoom entry.

*The hearing on proposed changes to the cannabis cultivation ordinance is the first item on the board’s regular agenda, which follows consent items and ceremonial resolutions.

A vocal crowd of 40 or so people gathered Monday morning at the entrance to the administrative center for Sonoma County government, hoping to pump the brakes on proposed new rules that would make it easier for growers to get a permit to raise cannabis crops and open up more ground where those farms can go outside cities.

The demonstration came ahead of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors hearing, which could give the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office more authority to issue cultivation permits without public notice or a hearing.

That streamlined process, two years in the making, is long overdue, say supporters, who note that it’s been five years since California legalized marijuana for adult use. Despite the presence of some 3,000 growers in Sonoma County, it has issued only 184 cultivation permits.

But the ordinance is strenuously opposed by some rural residents, who argue that cannabis farms close to their neighborhoods will siphon off water that’s already scarce, attract thieves, emit a powerful, skunklike smell and drive down property values.

“Dry wells can’t fight fires” warned a placard held by one woman.

“No pot on our lots!” chanted Diana Barnacle, whose battery-powered megaphone carried her voice for at least a quarter mile.

The supervisors, meanwhile, were gathered in a closed session — they met remotely — discussing the legal ramifications of the proposed ordinance. Opponents have threatened to sue if the county adopts the revised rules before conducting a full environmental impact report.

The proposed ordinance would allow outdoor cannabis plantings to comprise 10% of any parcel of 10 acres or more, doing away with a current 1-acre cap on farms, which would remain limited to land zoned for agriculture and resource development.

A county planning document said the amendment would cover up to 65,753 acres but added it was “extremely unlikely” all available land would be used to grow cannabis.

“I understand that we need revenue,” said Barnacle, referring to the tax dollars collected by the county for legal marijuana permits and sales. “But if it’s at the cost of our water and environment, and our quality of life, than it’s not worth it.”

Like the majority of the people at the protest, Barnacle lives in Liberty Valley, a rural residential area northwest of Petaluma. To hear those residents of Pepper Road, Pepper Lane, Jewett Road and Mecham Road tell it, groundwater in the area is scarce, and there’s none to spare for cannabis, a notoriously thirsty crop.

“There’s no water,” said Michael Cole, whose one-year-old daughter, under the under the awning of her stroller, napped right through the protest. “We get 0.8 gallons per minute” from the well on his property.

“We get one gallon,” a friend of his chimed in.

George Baur, who’s lived on Pepper Road for more than 70 years, pointed out that the big county landfill nearby has its own water issues. It must rely, he said, on water from a well near the Washoe House, a roadhouse 1.6 miles away.

Fears of cannabis farms draining the aquifers under Sonoma County are greatly exaggerated, said Erich Pearson, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Sonoma County and owner of SPARC, a San Francisco-based cannabis retailer with storefronts in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Sonoma.

Yes, marijuana plants need significant water — “but only 50% more than grapes,” he said.

The ordinance being considered by the county, he pointed out, has strict measures written into it that ensure cannabis farms will operate only if there is adequate water.

“This is the only crop in the county where you need a hydrologist to demonstrate there’s enough water,” said Pearson, referring to cannabis. “It’s the only crop in the county where the landowner has to give an easement to officials to come in and monitor the well but also the [water] meter.

“If you want to scream about water, go scream at another industry, not the cannabis industry, because we’re leading the way in terms of conservation. What the county has proposed for cannabis farmers as it relates to water, and monitoring water, is as progressive and forward thinking as anybody has done.”

Diana Barnacle, the mother of Petaluma Councilman Brian Barnacle, was one of several protesters voicing fears that commercial cannabis farms will bring crime. She owns property in Humboldt County, home base for the state’s entrenched black market cannabis industry. “Up in the Emerald Triangle,” she said. “I see what happens. One of the farmers up there just got shot.”

Pearson argues that such fears are not grounded in reality for the regulated businesses. There is far less crime, he points out, around legal cannabis operations. “When we hear about guns and crime, it’s always an illegal grow,” he said.

“People are going to get their cannabis one way or another. When we oppose legal grows, we encourage illicit grows — and that’s where crime happens.”

But the crowd gathered Monday under the ice cream cone-shaped sculpture outside the administration center was adamant in its stance.

“I’m not against pot,” said Joy Ambra. “I think it’s wonderful medicine. I smoke it myself.

“I’m just against commercial grows in my neighborhood.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

Board of Supervisors meeting

When: 8:30 a.m. Tuesday*

How to watch or participate: Visit sonoma-county.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx for instructions on the livestream and Zoom entry.

*The hearing on proposed changes to the cannabis cultivation ordinance is the first item on the board’s regular agenda, which follows consent items and ceremonial resolutions.

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