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Santa Rosa cannabis operation can proceed despite neighborhood protest

The City Council voted 5-1 to approve the proposal, which would border a neighborhood in southeast Santa Rosa.|

Santa Rosa has approved the city’s first cannabis extraction plant proposed next to a neighborhood, a step that came over the protests of nearby homeowners who highlighted the absence of any meaningful residential setback requirements for pot operations in the city’s commercial marijuana regulations.

The vocal opposition generated against the project by residents in the Harvest Park neighborhood of southeast Santa Rosa likely foreshadows future disputes as the cannabis industry expands in the city.

Under the 5-1 vote by the City Council on Tuesday, NT Ventures, a Hillsborough-based company, now has permission to proceed with developing a manufacturing facility for medicinal and recreational cannabis products at 444 Yolanda Ave. The roughly 3,900-square-foot facility sits on a 2.1-acre site zoned for industrial use and surrounded on three sides by similar parcels. It would be used for cannabis oil extraction, according to staff reports.

Residents in Harvest Park, which borders the property on the southern side, fear the new business will become a target for criminals and worry that the oil-extraction process - butane would be used at the NT Ventures site - is a safety risk to nearby homes.

But Alex Rowland, the CEO of NT Ventures, told the City Council that the company’s operations would be safe and would generate up to $2.4 million annually in tax revenue for the city.

“All these concerns about the danger I think are not really warranted,” Rowland said Tuesday.

Neighbors had appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of NT Ventures’ efforts in July and accused the City Council of ignoring their concerns as the project worked its way through city government. At least 10 Harvest Park residents spoke against the proposal on Tuesday night.

“We’re not anti-cannabis, but we are anti-this project,” said Matt Earnshaw, an engineer living in Harvest Park who was one of the appellants.

Tuesday’s decision in favor of the project came after more than three hours of public testimony and council deliberation. Mayor Chris Coursey was the lone dissenter and Councilman Ernesto Olivares was absent for the vote.

“Being first is very, very difficult” for residents and businesses alike, said Councilman John Sawyer. “Until there’s a lot of time that has passed and fear is replaced with knowledge and experience, these conversations will be painful.”

Welcoming stance

Situated between the famed Emerald Triangle marijuana growing region and Bay Area markets with millions of consumers, Santa Rosa has sought to be come a hub for the state’s newly legalized and regulated cannabis commerce.

Officials over the past two years crafted regulations that aimed to attract a range of new marijuana businesses.

But that welcoming posture is now riling some residents.

No setbacks from neighborhoods are required for manufacturers under the city’s current cannabis ordinance, allowing NT Ventures’ property to share a border with homes on Summercreek Drive.

The council majority showed no interest in revising that regulation to cover NT Ventures.

Most council members voiced sympathy for the residents of Harvest Park but were not persuaded to vote in their favor. Councilman Tom Schwedhelm acknowledged he could envision a situation where a cannabis manufacturer bordered his own property.

“I don’t like it, but I get it,” he said, alluding to the realities of the newly legalized cannabis marketplace in California.

Coursey seemed surprised by the controversy over setbacks.

But “setbacks were probably 90 percent of our conversations across 20 (cannabis) subcommittee meetings,” said Clare Hartman, the city’s deputy director for planning. “In the public outreach, setbacks came up quite a bit.”

“I think throughout that process, there was an emphasis on not penalizing cannabis from legalizing and becoming a legitimate business,” Hartman said. “So the deference through the process, and ultimately the adoption of the ordinance, landed on: If we don’t have a setback for noncannabis counterparts, then let’s not impose that on the cannabis version.”

Late into the hearing Tuesday evening, Coursey acknowledged that city was still grappling with its regulatory approach to cannabis. NT Ventures is just the second operator approved by the city to use volatile solvents such as butane in its manufacturing since Santa Rosa’s cannabis ordinance took effect in January.

“We’re obviously trying to figure things out as we go along, but that’s part of being transparent and the public process, so you get to see the sausage being made,” Coursey said.

Safety measures required

NT Ventures’ proposal won approval from the Planning Commission in late July. Matt and Shelly Earnshaw appealed soon after, triggering a City Council hearing to decide the matter.

The Earnshaws were joined at Tuesday evening’s hearing by about 20 other residents of Harvest Park. The residents testified that the new facility would decrease the value of their homes, become a target for would-be thieves, and place homes in proximity to a potentially hazardous manufacturing operation. Noise and odor were also cited as concerns by neighbors.

“None of you would live there,” Matt Earnshaw told the council. “None of you would accept this.”

Roman Hubalek, who lives on Summercreek Drive, said he was particularly worried about the company’s proposed use of butane - a gas that has been linked to a number of explosions at illicit hash-oil operations.

“Nothing is 100 percent safe,” Hubalek said. “Accidents will happen.”

Under state law, licensed cannabis manufacturers must employ equipment and processes that meet safety standards. The City Council also imposed additional requirements on NT Ventures, requiring additional containment of their lab facilities and the location of that equipment as far away from the property line as possible.

While touting NT Ventures’ safety measures, Rowland noted that the company already had invested at least $1 million into the Yolanda Avenue location.

“We are not Wal-Mart,” he said about the prospect of moving to another site. “It’s just not quite that simple.”

But Earnshaw said the safeguards were not sufficient. He did not rule out legal action.

“We’ve always felt from the beginning, as a neighborhood group, that our concerns weren’t addressed by the city at all,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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