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Sonoma County cannabis growers and rural residents still at sharp odds over cultivation rules

Nearly 8 million Californians voted to make cannabis cultivation, sales and consumption legal in 2016, and the following year more than 360 farmers sought permission to farm the intoxicating plant in Sonoma County.

Since then, only 184 permits have been granted in a county that at that time was home to about 3,000 growers. Under pressure from many of those frustrated farmers, the Board of Supervisors 15 months ago agreed to streamline the permit process and treat marijuana more like other crops.

But those rules have yet to be finalized, and they are now at the center of a widening rift between commercial marijuana cultivators and rural residents concerned about the future footprint of cannabis farms in the county.

On April 15, the county Planning Commission will take another look at a proposal to give the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office more authority to issue cultivation permits without public notice or a hearing, a main point of conflict between growers intent on going legal and rural residents who don’t want pot sprouting anywhere near them.

“The odor is horrible. There’s no escaping it,” said Robert Guthrie, a Sebastopol area resident who said the smell from nearly an acre of cannabis 100 feet from his home lasts from June until the fall harvest.

“That’s really the time you want to be outdoors,” he said, adding he would not have purchased his home in 2016 had he known what was in store a year later.

Guthrie, who keeps his windows shut year-round to avoid the heady odor, belongs to the Neighborhood Coalition, a loose confederation of residents formed in response to the proposed revision of county cannabis rules.

The group’s website — itstoomuchcannabis.com — asserts the “cannabis industry wants to open up 65,000 acres to new growth in Sonoma County,” calling it a step that “will forever alter our neighborhoods, environment and quality of life.”

A full-page advertisement the group placed Sunday in The Press Democrat makes a similar assertion, equating a potential future expansion of cannabis in the county with the extent of terrain now occupied by wine grapes.

It’s a claim without much if any ground truth, say county officials involved in deciding the disputed rules.

“I would question where that statement comes from,” said Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “If they have data to back up that assertion, I would like to see it.”

The coalition’s website includes a map of the county plastered with blue icons indicating “potential future cannabis grow properties” and a statement that nearly 100,000 residents will live within a mile of one of the sites.

A county planning document says the proposed ordinance would cover up to 65,753 acres but adds that it is “extremely unlikely” all available land would be used to grow cannabis. The document does not say how much of that terrain is occupied by wine grapes, the region’s dominant crop, or other forms of agriculture.

The county currently limits outdoor cannabis plantings to 1 acre and allows them only on properties 10 acres or larger outside city limits on parcels zoned for agriculture and resource development.

The proposed law would allow more plants on larger properties as long as the cultivated area doesn’t exceed 10% of the parcel.

It would also allow Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith to grant cultivation permits on agriculture and resource zoned lands if certain standards are met.

Approval of cultivation projects that do not meet the standards would continue to be handled by Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning and building agency, through a process involving public notice and hearing.

The cannabis industry, while supportive of some of those changes, has still found fault in the revisions.

Lauren Mendelsohn, an attorney with a Sebastopol firm focused on the hemp and cannabis industries, and Craig Litwin, CEO of the 421 Group, a cannabis industry consultancy, said that many parcels of 10 acres or more would by disqualified for failing to meet standards for slopes, setbacks from neighbors and streams and water supply.

Litwin said the water supply standards in the county’s proposal are “stronger than anything we’ve seen before,” including mandatory hydrological testing.

Cannabis critics say the new regulations, on the other hand, may not go far enough to safeguard the local landscape.

The Neighborhood Coalition’s full-page newspaper advertisement says the proposed ordinance “has not been fully studied for its potential long-term environmental effects.” It goes on to call out potential impacts on water supply and other scarce resources.

“Now is the time to tell our government officials how we feel,” it says.

Among all sides, there is nearly unanimous agreement that the county’s management of the cannabis industry needs improvement.

“The current policy is just not working,” Mendelsohn said. “This has become an issue that has pitted neighbors against each other.”

But she said the coalition’s strident critique is premature, predicting that the ordinance ultimately approved by the supervisors will have gone through significant revisions since first coming before the board in 2019.

Litwin said the residents’ objections are all “prohibitionist arguments” that fail to account “for what a successful cannabis industry would look like.”

The proposed ordinance is “the right move for Sonoma County,” he said.

Alexa Wall, Sonoma County Growers Alliance board member, was less optimistic, expressing concern that many farmers might not qualify for the expedited licensing process they have long sought.

“I don’t know if it’s the answer,” said Wall, a Penngrove cultivator who secured a license in 2½ years.

Wall noted the irony that hemp — the same species with the same odor and appearance as marijuana but with marginal psychoactive properties — has been legalized by Congress and was openly planted in Sonoma County last year, including in at least one vineyard.

Guthrie said the coalition is especially annoyed by the proposal to allow the agricultural commissioner’s office to approve permits without public notice or hearing.

“That’s completely unfair,” he said. “As a citizen you should have a say in what goes on around you.”

“We support cannabis grown in the right places at the right scale, but we’re facing a radical change in how land is used in Sonoma County, which will impact all of us,” the coalition website says.

But the Sonoma County Farm Bureau has jumped into the fight on the side of growers, concerned about “regulatory creep” — that heavy-handed rules applied to cannabis cultivation may eventually be applied to traditional crops, said Tawny Tesconi, the group’s executive director.

Some of the bureau’s 1,800 members, including dairies and vineyard operators, are considering cannabis as a source of added revenue, she said.

Cannabis yields about $1.1 million per acre, according to a New Frontier data report in 2016, while Sonoma County vineyards reaped about $11,000 per acre from just over 59,000 acres in 2019, according to the latest county crop report.

Hopkins said she wished the county had a “simple, streamlined process” for approving cannabis expansion “in places where it is appropriate.”

“I haven’t met anyone who is happy with it now,” she said. Residents and prospective growers alike are “extremely frustrated.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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