Sonoma County commission to take up long-delayed rules for commercial cannabis farms
Sonoma County is reconsidering its rules for cannabis cultivation with the goal of streamlining the approval process for growers and aligning the industry more closely with traditional agriculture.
A central element of the county’s plan is to shift oversight for cannabis farming outside city limits from the planning and building department, known as Permit Sonoma, to the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office — a move that would give cannabis farms a clearer path to approval and eliminate the public appeals that are currently a part of that process.
Supervisors approved the change in oversight about 15 months ago to address the county’s struggle to legalize commercial cannabis cultivation, but the disputed revisions have still not been finalized.
Planning commissioners will consider the revisions at a Thursday afternoon meeting in what is likely to be a lengthy discussion.
Key elements of the proposed rules have drawn sharp criticism from both local cannabis industry leaders and neighborhood groups opposed to commercial cannabis in their areas.
Vocal groups of residents are worried they will lose the opportunity to weigh in on new commercial pot farms in their rural neighborhoods, as happens currently when permit applications go through the building department.
Local cannabis industry leaders have celebrated that pending change, but they are concerned that the regulations remain too complicated and costly compared to other annual row crops.
Supervisor David Rabbitt said he is still uncertain the county has struck the right balance. He wants to see some overly onerous requirements removed. But he also believes the county hasn’t yet found the right way to ensure pot farms are in the right locations with the proper safeguards in place.
“Are you moving (a cannabis farm) into an established rural community and interrupting the fabric of life? Or are you putting this in an area where you’re not going to have negative interaction with a neighbor?” Rabbitt said.
More than 360 cultivators applied to start new cannabis farms or legalize existing ones after the county first began taking applications in July 2017. Many of those applicants dropped out or failed to advance to approval. The county did not have updated numbers Wednesday on the number of licensed cannabis farms or pending applications.
The county caps cannabis farms at 1 acre and allows them only on properties that are 10 acres or larger in unincorporated areas zoned for agricultural uses.
Another substantial change would be to lift that 1-acre cap to include a provision allowing for more plants on larger properties as long as the cultivation area doesn’t exceed 10% of the parcel size.
The Sonoma County Farm Bureau has emerged as a key ally for the cannabis industry, coming out with a strong position that rules envisioned to govern marijuana cultivation unfairly target one agricultural sector and could ultimately make it hard for all farmers to operate in the county.
Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the bureau, said the group’s top concern is that “regulator creep” of complicated rules for cannabis farms, targeting odor for example, could eventually add costly new requirements for traditional agriculture.
“We do have a concern this could make it more and more difficult for our farmers to raise crops and food and make it more likely it will become too costly to farm in Sonoma County,” Tesconi said.
The farm bureau issued a detailed seven-page letter to the Planning Commission outlining its concerns about how the rules might adversely affect farming in general. In one instance, the bureau singled out the county’s restrictions aimed at limiting the odor of marijuana, arguing that “odor from cannabis is seasonal and like other crops should be tolerated in the interest of having working lands and open space.”
“It is a travesty that the county staff took so long to release the draft of the cannabis ordinance,” the bureau wrote in the March 15 letter. “It puts small cannabis cultivation businesses in a position to begrudgingly accept whatever poorly written, overreaching, and vague regulations have been developed for fear of losing the 2021 growing season which starts in a few months.”
Some residents strongly oppose those changes, arguing the draft ordinance takes away a critical avenue for neighbors to weigh in.
Bennett Valley resident Kristen Decker said she and other neighbors were able to use the public notice requirements that go with a land use permit to alert the county to what they viewed as major issues in their community with cannabis cultivation.
The new proposals for cannabis rules would take that avenue away.
“The changes the county is proposing in this ordinance would have made it impossible for us to have any legal means to work with the county to help shut down a bad player,” said Decker.
But shifting oversight to county agriculture officials is a crucial and urgent step, said Erich Pearson, chief executive officer of SPARC dispensaries and farms.
Pearson, who is a member of the Cannabis Business Association of Sonoma County, said he and others hope the county will move forward with the broad framework of the revisions by shifting responsibility of the cannabis program to the agriculture division and hold some changes for further analysis.
“This was supposed to be ready for last spring’s planting, and here we are up against spring again,” said Pearson.
The pandemic has added urgency to his belief the county should do what it can to help businesses launch and stay afloat.
“Sonoma County needs to have a business-friendly environment,” Pearson said. “Sonoma County is known for direct-to-consumer sales, hospitality. It’s a destination. This is a perfect crop to do that with.”
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.