Sonoma County supervisors ban rural pot cultivation
Siding with rural residents opposed to cannabis cultivation in their neighborhoods, Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday rejected a proposal to allow small-scale growers to farm marijuana in any rural residential zones outside city limits.
Supervisors Shirlee Zane, David Rabbitt and James Gore voiced strong support for an outright ban, opposing a county Planning Commission recommendation to allow cottage-sized cultivation on rural residential lots of 2 acres in size or more.
The three were forceful in their opposition, with Rabbitt and Gore saying they believe marijuana farms are not an appropriate land use, and Zane adding she’s most worried about crime associated with the industry.
“There’s a lot of violence with home invasions. … I think the crime element has not been discussed enough,” Zane said. “People who live in rural residential (areas) have a right to live in a safe community.”
The board, instead, voted to approve a broader, far-reaching land-use ordinance regulating marijuana cultivation, both indoors and outdoors, on agricultural and industrial zones across the county. Implementation is tied largely to the success of a marijuana cultivation tax set for a March 7 special election, or finding an alternative funding source.
Zane’s comments followed earlier testimony Tuesday from county law enforcement officials, who said crimes associated with marijuana cultivation and trimming appear to be growing in both number and severity.
Lt. Tim Duke of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said 774 crimes between July 2013 and July 2016 have been associated in some way with the sale or distribution of marijuana. And although he could not immediately provide figures, Duke said all home-invasion robberies over that same period were connected to the marijuana trade. Growing operations can be a magnet for crime because the trade is largely an all-cash industry because of federal banking regulations that still consider marijuana a highly addictive substance, county law enforcement officials said.
“With home invasions, regarding marijuana, they are very violent acts,” Duke said. “Usually some type of force is used … we all realize it’s the cash that is the draw for the criminal more than the marijuana itself.”
Duke and Assistant District Attorney Bill Brockley said they are seeing an increase of crimes associated with out-of-state suspects affiliated with the marijuana industry. Both referenced recent homicides involving marijuana - an October shooting that killed two people and a stabbing last month that left one dead.
In general, growers do not dispute that marijuana operations can attract crime, but local cannabis farmers said they, too, are concerned about violence surrounding the industry. They’ve said they want to come out of the shadows, in part, to feel more comfortable going to law enforcement with concerns or when problems arise.
Joe Munson, a grower who sells his buds to medical marijuana dispensaries and donates a portion of his product to low-income patients, said the outright ban will drive many in the industry back underground.
“This is going to affect a whole lot of people. This is how they feed themselves,” Munson said. “People are going to head right back into the hills, the national forests.”
Rural residents, some of whom held up signs at Tuesday’s hearing that read “Protect our homes,” and “Neighborhoods should not go to pot,” said they were relieved.
“I’m grateful to supervisors for listening to what we said,” said Alicia Bunce, who lives outside Santa Rosa. “The biggest thing we’re concerned about is crime and intimidation and harassment. We’re not against marijuana, just where you grow it.”
Across the county there are more than 30,000 rural residential lots.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman who is stepping down at the end of the year, pressed the board to follow the Planning Commission recommendation to allow growing in rural neighborhoods. As the only supervisor clearly supporting cultivation in rural residential zones, he called the ban “a mistake.”
“My only concern is if you over-regulate and push folks into the shadows, you’re going to miss out on the opportunity to regulate in an efficient way and be able to invite folks to the process.”
Gorin was open to discussing both possibilities, and at one point, floated an idea to allow growing on rural residential parcels 5 acres or more.
For-profit cannabis operations such as dispensaries will be permitted in industrial and commercial zones, with a 1,000-foot buffer from facilities such as schools, child care and drug treatment centers, and parks.
Revenue from the tax on cultivation - 35 cents to $18.75 per square foot, or an estimated $5.8 million in the first year - would fund implementation and enforcement of the new regulations. Permitting and enforcement efforts could cost the county $5 million per year or more, and require the hiring of up to 39 additional employees.
Supervisors expect to formally adopt the ordinance at their regular meeting Dec. 20. The cost of the March 7 special election is estimated at $400,000, county officials said.
You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or email@example.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.