Sonoma County supervisors approve contentious Petaluma cannabis farm

The farm will be the first 1-acre cultivation site to reach a final stage of approval in Sonoma County. The decision is likely to trigger a legal challenge from neighbors who have opposed the project from the start.|

One of the most hotly contested new cannabis farms proposed in Sonoma County received approval from the Board of Supervisors this week, marking a significant victory long sought by local marijuana growers trying to gain a foothold in the new legal market.

A majority of supervisors voted to allow Petaluma Hills Farm to cultivate about 1 acre of cannabis on a former chicken ranch on rural Purvine Road in west Petaluma’s windswept dairy lands. A half-acre can be grown outside, another half-acre can be cultivated in a greenhouse and indoors and the majority of the 37-acre parcel must be used for other types of agriculture, currently cattle grazing.

The decision is likely to trigger a legal challenge from a group of neighbors who have opposed the project since it was proposed nearly three years ago. They have also tried to halt marijuana cultivation there by suing Petaluma Hills Farm and its founder, Sam Magruder.

“This is a huge win for all growers,” said Magruder, the property owner who started Petaluma Hills Farm. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, and I’m excited the county has trusted us to show how cannabis can be grown in Sonoma County.”

Finding a place for commercial cannabis farms has been the greatest challenge of legalization in Sonoma County. The county’s rules call for marijuana cultivation to get out of ecologically sensitive areas and rural residential neighborhoods and onto larger agricultural lands.

But some in agricultural communities do not welcome the new industry. They have rallied regularly at meetings, wearing red clothing and hats to identify themselves. In response, local marijuana advocates have showed up wearing green.

The tension can be seen on Purvine Road, a narrow rural lane in Two Rock valley where several neighbors have posted large signs reading “No Pot on Purvine” to their fences. The slogan is both their mission and the name of a nonprofit they formed to organize their legal campaign.

Monday, the supervisors rejected their appeal to an April approval of the project by county zoning officials, which brought the issue to the board to decide. Neighbors pleaded with supervisors to vote against the project and side with their concerns that it could change their community by attracting crime and bringing the strong odor of marijuana to their backyards.

“The cannabis ordinance forgot about the families who will be living next to these facilities,” said Britt Jensen, whose family home is just over 600 feet from the proposed site of the outdoor cannabis plot.

But four of five supervisors agreed the agricultural setting and large size of the property was ideal for cannabis cultivation, noting the proposal was thorough and included a well-designed security plan. Supervisor James Gore said the size of the property combined with its location in an active ranching area - characterized by strong odors of manure and ducks and other livestock - made it an ideal location.

“It’s agriculture in my mind, no matter how we classify it,” said Gore, referring to the technical definition of cannabis as an agricultural product and not a crop.

Magruder will be required to meet nearly 200 conditions in order to put plants in the ground, including planting hedges, trees and other natural screens to block any view of cannabis plants from the Jensen home. The permit to cultivate has a five-year term.

The one dissenting vote came from Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the area. Rabbitt has criticized the county ordinance he and his board colleagues created for commercial cannabis, arguing they need to scrap and rewrite it after a comprehensive and countywide environmental review to address concerns such as water use and odor.

“You heard the outcry from neighbors today,” Rabbitt said Monday from the dais when he cast his dissenting vote. “I thank the applicant for coming forward, but I wish it was a different site.”

Neighbors have vowed to continue to challenge the farm.

Their attorney, Kevin Block, said they are considering challenging the supervisors’ decision and have about three months to decide. They have already sued Magruder and his company in Sonoma County Superior Court and successfully petitioned a judge to issue an injunction barring him from growing marijuana on the site without a local permit and state license to cultivate or hold events.

The lawsuit - which prompted an unsuccessful countersuit by Magruder’s company - is under appeal. The county found no evidence of illegal cultivation on Magruder’s property. A tenant previously grew plants for medicinal purposes.

Block said his clients are firm in their belief that cannabis cultivation is not appropriate on the rural lane despite its agricultural setting, and they are considering a variety of steps to validate their concerns, such as bringing in experts to analyze odors.

“There are a lot of parcels out there where a project of this size and nature can be done without infringing on the quality of life of the neighbors,” Block said. “Why would you put the burden on the neighbors?”

About 16 acres of cannabis are already being cultivated in the county, including some existing growers grandfathered into compliance temporarily, with an estimated gross value of $95.8 million, according to Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.

Magruder’s farm - which is slated to be renamed Sonoma Hills Farm to avoid confusion with a similarly named company - is not the first to be approved by the county, but it is the first 1-acre farm to reach this stage of approval through the discretionary land-use process.

Magruder has about a half-dozen head of Highland cattle on the land, plus a larger herd raised by a rancher who leases 25 of his acres to graze. Tossing hay to the cattle Wednesday morning, Magruder, 42, said he bought the cattle from a neighbor and was still learning their quirks and care. But he has decades of experience cultivating marijuana after he became a proponent for legalization when working as a caretaker for a man with multiple sclerosis who used cannabis to treat his symptoms.

Magruder lives in San Francisco but he plans to move to Petaluma with the new momentum brought by Monday’s vote.

The farm is Magruder’s brainchild and he has two partners who provided key investment funds needed to get through the expensive regulatory process - which he said cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Monday’s approval means they can move forward to get the grading and building permits to break ground.

They plan to start growing plants in greenhouses in the spring and put plants in the ground in May or June.

“I don’t want to see this area turned into tract homes,” Magruder said. “Cannabis is another way for the agricultural community to make money from your land.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220.

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