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Sonoma County supervisors agree to lift ban on commercial hemp cultivation

Sonoma County supervisors Monday took a critical step that signals they will lift a ban on hemp cultivation that would allow farmers to plant the first commercial crop in the county later this year, a decision made over objections from residents concerned about the plant’s similarity to cannabis.

Supervisors unanimously agreed the county should treat hemp like any other crop: allow it to be grown on properties zoned for agricultural uses with light regulation akin to other types of farming and less strict than the long list of rules governing cannabis.

Hemp doesn’t get people high and growing it is legal in the U.S., which explains why supervisors don’t plan the rigorous guidelines for the crop that are in place for cannabis - a plant still illegal under federal law.

The rules for hemp would include setbacks from property lines and occupied homes to lessen the effect of hemp and its odor on neighbors, while preserving the right to farm on agricultural properties affirmed by state and local laws.

Board members largely concurred with county Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar, who cautioned the board against creating rules for hemp they wouldn’t put on traditional farming. Linegar offered a blunt assessment of how overly strict regulations for farming hemp, urged in large part by those who oppose cannabis, could hinder the ability of all local farmers to grow hemp as a way to diversify their crop production.

“We shouldn’t start laying different criteria on the growing of hemp that we wouldn’t put on broccoli,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

Supervisors are expected to cast a final vote on the rules by April, ending a temporary one-year moratorium on hemp cultivation they enacted in April 2018. The ban was intended to give county staff time to develop farming rules for a close cousin of cannabis, which is strictly regulated in California.

Some opponents to hemp cultivation worry its strong odor could create a nuisance for rural neighbors and draw criminals looking for cannabis.

“Regulations (of hemp) must be same as for cannabis because criminals often can’t tell the difference,” said Graton resident Jane Eagle told supervisors during Monday’s hearing.

Hemp and cannabis are essentially identical in sight and skunky smell. But hemp has only a trace amount of the intoxicant tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is what makes people high, and is used primarily for textiles and increasingly for the medicinal uses of another compound, cannabidiol, or CBD. Hemp farmers will have to prove the plants have an acceptable trace amount of THC by presenting reports of tests taken about one month before harvest, Linegar said.

Hemp farmers will have to register with the agricultural commissioner’s office and will be expected to follow a written set of best practices. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins asked county staff to adjust language in the ordinance so setbacks also will apply to developed public facilities, such as playgrounds and bike trails. Linegar urged supervisors to foster a promising new hemp industry and the plant’s potential as a source of fiber, nutrition and medicinal oils still being studied.

“This is an amazing plant in terms of what it can offer people, and we’ve known that for centuries,” he said. “I would love to see us turn the corner on this bias and start to look at it for what it is.”

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, urged the board at Monday’s hearing to approve the ordinance and avoid requiring farmers interested in hemp to go through an expensive and time-consuming process, such as the one required for cannabis cultivation. Traditional farmers and ranchers are interested in planting hemp to boost their businesses - evident in a meeting last fall about hemp that drew a crowd of more than 50 farmers, mostly experienced local farmers, she said.

“Hemp cultivation is really going to help Sonoma county diversify agriculture,” Tesconi said.

More than a dozen residents told the supervisors about their concerns over the potential for hemp cultivation in their areas, including a group of Graton neighbors who urged them to consider the impact of commercial farming in rural communities adjacent public parks and trails such as the West County Trail.

Other neighbors pressed the board to consider limiting commercial hemp cultivation in areas with delicate ecosystems, particularly those with critical watersheds.

Laura Waldbaum, who lives on St. Helena Road near the Sonoma-Napa county line, pressed supervisors to carefully consider the effect of commercial farming on impaired watersheds important to salmon and steelhead.

“I don’t want special rules for hemp. I want rules for water-scarce areas, regardless of what the water is being used for,” Waldbaum said.

Supervisors seemed to take note of Waldbaum’s and others’ concerns. Board chair Susan Gorin asked staff to come up with a plan for the board to discuss creating a comprehensive plan to address water use from a variety of uses - including agricultural and residential impacts - in areas with critical watersheds.

“If we’re going to have a discussion about agriculture in those areas, we need to talk about whether we’re going to permit someone’s 4,000-square-foot home in those areas,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “Let’s take a close look at development in those watersheds.”

Gorin also said that they will do the same for tree-removal issues, a growing area of concern at a time of sudden oak death and attention to wildfire risks.

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