Sonoma County set for reckoning over rules for commercial cannabis crop

Cannabis growers see their future at stake in the new rules, while opponents in rural neighborhoods say an expansion of marijuana farms risks undermining their quality of life.|

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.

Just south of the historic Washoe House bar northwest of Petaluma, the first hints of neighborhood agitation against the area’s nascent cannabis industry appear on the asphalt of Pepper Road.

In barely discernible white spray-painted letters, someone has pledged neighbors’ wholesale opposition to marijuana cultivation in the bucolic Liberty Valley, home to numerous Sonoma County dairies.

Ron Evenich’s family has lived on Pepper Lane, just off of Pepper Road, since 1969. His property sits a few houses down from more formal vinyl signs calling for “No Pot on Pepper.”

Evenich still has the tank his family used to haul water daily during the mid-1970s drought, but in the thick of another historically dry year, his focus sits squarely on the push for nearby cannabis cultivation and the fear that a looming change to Sonoma County land use rules could spur a boom in pot farms around him.

“It’s gonna be a free-for-all,” he said.

This rural enclave in the dairylands west of Petaluma is highly active front in the battle between Sonoma County’s rural neighborhoods and commercial pot operators. Neighbors here have joined far-flung residents across the county in what they see as a fight for their rural existence — and against a slate of revised rules that could expand where commercial cannabis crops can be grown outside cities and how large those farms can be.

The ordinance is set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“I think there is a lot at stake,” said board Chair Lynda Hopkins, who helped develop the ordinance as part of the board’s cannabis ad-hoc committee. “Cannabis cultivators feel like the future of cannabis in Sonoma County is at stake. Neighbors, they feel their very quality of life and the health of the environment is at stake. I think it’s a very existential debate on both sides of the aisle.”

Cannabis ordinance

The proposed ordinance, which is more than two years in the making, transfers more cultivation approval to the county’s Department of Agriculture through an over-the-counter permit process and opens up more of the county’s acreage to pot, among other changes.

County planning commissioners last month advanced the ordinance, with some key changes, setting up what’s likely to be a contentious public discussion Tuesday among supervisors.

County leaders and growers say the change is desperately needed after years of bureaucratic stagnation delayed permitting for operations that otherwise meet legal requirements set in motion by Californians’ legalization of marijuana for adult-use in 2016.

“Reform to the existing ordinance is urgently needed,” Hopkins said. “Right now, going through the use permit process for cannabis is clear as mud, and it disproportionately favors the wealthy. There is far too much ambiguity for all sides about what constitutes a good location for cannabis.”

Supervisor James Gore, Hopkins’ counterpart on the board’s cannabis ad-hoc, called the current cannabis approval structure an “abject failure,” but he said he wasn’t sure supervisors would commit to wholesale change at their Tuesday meeting.

“I think there’s going to be a big discussion, and we’re going to see if we’re able to get to consensus,” said Gore, whose sister-in-law runs a cannabis business in Cloverdale. “If we do that, we’ll probably have to bring it back a couple of times to figure out the details.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the south county, including Petaluma’s rural outskirts, has long been guarded about the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries and expansion of cannabis farms outside of cities.

He was the lone ’no’ vote when one of the first, Sonoma Hills Farm, gained approval under the county’s new rules in October 2019. The farm in January celebrated its first permitted crop. But Rabbitt remains reluctant to support the burgeoning industry – particularly where it may come into conflict with residents.

“I don’t think we’ve done enough to protect rural residential neighborhoods,” said Rabbitt, adding that new rules must steer cannabis operations to more compatible areas. “We just need to make sure our ordinance pushes people to those sites, and we haven’t been as successful as I would like in the south county.”

If approved, 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.

Still, neighborhood groups have sounded the alarm that the change would open up 65,000 acres to new cannabis farms in the county.

“If they (approve the changes) on the 18th, you’re gonna see marijuana farms pop up all around the county line and Petaluma,” said Evenich, who serves as the Pepper Road representative to the countywide neighborhood group opposing the ordinance.

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.

Growers, including Alexa Wall, who has run the Penngrove farm Luma California since 2014, said neighbors’ fears aren’t based in reality.

“I think the neighbors are focused on what’s possible – what could happen,” Wall said during a Press Democrat Editorial Board meeting Tuesday.

Wall said growers would have to find the “perfect property” to cruise through the new ministerial permitting process, adding that most will end up back in the traditional process, which involves plenty of notice to neighbors.

County officials have so far forgone a formal environmental review, declaring instead that the changes would be no less strict than the current environmental protections.

But neighbors see the move as tectonic shift in the cannabis landscape that would greenlight more pot with less notice to nearby residents, a combination so unpalatable they’ve threatened to sue if county supervisors approve the ordinance before conducting a full environmental impact report.

The board has even scheduled a special closed-door meeting Monday to discuss anticipated litigation on the ordinance.

“The proposed changes to the cannabis permitting process will be some of the most significant land use changes in Sonoma County in the last 40 years and, during a crushing pandemic when families are struggling with immediate needs, almost no one who’s not already a grower or adjacent neighbor knows about it,” neighbors said in a May 3 letter to county leaders and media outlets.

Neighborhood fears

The neighborhood coalition has requested more than 30 changes before they would offer their support for a new cannabis ordinance.

Along with their desire to see a full environmental review, neighbors pushed for a moratorium on permits until that review is completed, sought greater setbacks for growers and pushed for a prohibition on water being trucked onto cannabis cultivators’ properties.

In an interview last week, Rabbitt signaled he would lean toward a moratorium during Tuesday’s discussion. And Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley, said she feels the tide shifting toward an environmental review.

As for how to balance that with long-sought changes from industry leaders, Gorin said “that’s the conundrum the board faces.”

Although Wall said she favors an environmental review, she and other cannabis operators say it shouldn’t come with a halt to new permitting.

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, said too much time has passed already.

But he also acknowledged some of the delays have been understandable.

“County staff and our supervisors have been focused on really important issues, which are fires and pandemic,” Pearson said. “But our industry is dying on the vine over here.”

Michael Cole has lived along Pepper Lane, adjacent to a pending cannabis operation, with his wife and their combined family of four kids for the past six years.

He fears the proposed one-acre cannabis operation near his home could quickly triple in size if the county ordinance is adopted. And with concerns that the operation could be a target for thieves, a problem that has been documented in the past in Sonoma County, Cole said his rural residential neighborhood isn’t the place for commercial cannabis.

“That’s one of my biggest fears, is the crime that it’s going to create, and the people it’s going to bring around here,” Cole said. “If this goes in, I’m not going to want my kids riding up and down the lane.”

Like Evenich, Cole also worries about water use amid what’s expected to be a historic drought. Cannabis is a water-intensive crop, using anywhere from double to six times the amount of water used to grow wine grapes, and Cole’s well is already pumping out less than one gallon per minute.

Similar complaints have played out countywide.

Steve Rogers serves on the Valley of the Moon Water Board in Sonoma and as president of the homeowner’s association of the Chantarelle neighborhood on the Sonoma Valley floor southwest of downtown Sonoma.

He says he voted to legalize marijuana but feels strongly that if you asked all the people who voted in favor of cannabis if they want it grown in Sonoma, they would say no.

“Our local homeowner’s association (Temelec) is radically opposed to cannabis farming being allowed in the Valley,” he said. “It is not the right crop to run alongside a residential neighborhood, potentially just 300 feet from our homes.”

Rogers is also concerned about the state of the Valley aquifers, which he says will be “incredibly difficult and costly to restore.

“The Board of Supervisors is very pro-agriculture but they can’t keep approving projects with intensive water usage,” he said. “Our wells down here are going dry.”

Wall, who lives on her Penngrove cannabis farm with her family, including her infant daughter, considers many of the neighbors’ fears overblown. Operators have to agree to strict water usage requirements, she said, and she has no concerns about raising a child on her farm.

"In this day and age, I’m more worried about my daughter going to school than living on a cannabis farm,“ she said.

On Monday, Evenich’s Pepper Lane home boasted another “No Pot on Pepper” sign on an outbuilding. He had more signs tucked inside his front door, waiting to be set out.

His group, and the county-wide neighborhood coalition, have hired two communications specialists to get their message out, but he’s not sure it will be enough.

“I’m not confident at all,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now. I need to bring awareness to all of it.”

Sonoma Index-Tribune Managing Editor Lorna Sheridan contributed to this report.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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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