Sonoma County set for reckoning over rules for commercial cannabis crop
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.”
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.