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Sonoma County supervisors extend cannabis cultivation permit moratorium

Sonoma County cannabis growers who use a streamlined permit designed to help small farmers have three years to apply for more stringently regulated permit or risk being shut down.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to extend the county’s 45-day moratorium on so-called multi-tenant use permits to September 10, 2023 in an attempt to rein in larger growers who are taking advantage of the system.

The decision will funnel 54 pending applicants into the county’s backlogged conditional use permitting process, which can take years and cost $50,000 to navigate.

Owners of the 85 multi-use permits now operating in the county will have three years from the date of their last permit renewal — so long as their grow does not exceed 10,000 square feet — to apply for conditional use permits.

“Definitely our current structure got us to this place,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said as she addressed the need for the moratorium. “I’m still looking for the mechanism for small growers but what we have is not that mechanism.”

The board also voted unanimously to use about $200,000 in cannabis tax revenues to refund the cost of application fees to the 54 pending applicants.

The moratorium extension is the board’s latest step to untangle and clarify the county’s cannabis cultivation ordinance, which for years has fueled tensions among Sonoma County residents who say the county’s regulations are too lax, and growers who say the lengthy and expensive permitting process has prevented small farmers from joining the industry.

Multi-use tenant permits became the latest flashpoint when in September county staff informed supervisors that the pathway is flawed.

The county adopted multi-tenant use permits in 2016 to help small farmers by allowing cannabis farmers with grows up to 10,000 square feet to share land. But, the pathway created a loophole allowing cultivators to get around stringent requirements for grows over 10,000 square feet by acquiring permits for adjacent smaller plots, which are not scrutinized as closely.

“Regardless of what industry you’re in, if you look at two alternate pathways and one’s easier and less expensive, you’re always going to take that pathway,” Andrew Smith, the county’s agriculture commissioner said Tuesday.

The county’s department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures issues the multi-tenant permits, while the county’s building and permit department, Permit Sonoma, oversees the more burdensome conditional use permits.

One of the big questions supervisors had for Smith on Tuesday, was just how many multi-tenant permit holders are big companies taking advantage of the loophole, but Smith was unable to provide a concrete answer.

“We could speculate but we would need to review all of the LLCs and their relationship with their employers,” Smith said, explaining his department had no effective way to verify any connection between permit holder and “big cannabis” operator

Nearly two hours of public comment highlighted just how divisive the issue has become.

Several cannabis farmers, including a few who said they either held multi-tenant permits or were pending applicants, stressed that a moratorium would place yet another barrier between small farmers and success in the industry.

Some urged the county to review permits and ownership on a case by case basis to separate the farmers using multi-tenant permits as the county intended, from the ones “gaming the system.”

"Imagine going into business and the rules keep changing as you’re buying buildings and trying to build your business," said Kim Gardner, a cannabis farmer.

Gardner said she, like other farmers, spent years waiting for a conditional use permit and “got nowhere,” but was able to make progress with a multi-tenant permit.

Residents supporting the moratorium spoke just as forcefully, highlighting their concerns over the safety, overall neighborhood impacts and the lack of opportunity for public input on cultivation proposals that currently, only conditional use permits allow for.

“Multi-tenant permitting feels like an exploitation of a loophole allowing industrial growers to get rubber stamps,” said Franz Valley resident Adam Messner. “I urge them (the board) to consider the negative impacts on residents and the natural environment, of these industrial grows.”

In May, the county committed to an environmental impact study evaluating the footprint and potential fallout of expanded cannabis operations outside city limits. The study is expected to take years.

Approving the moratorium extension required a four-fifths vote which supervisors struggled to reach Tuesday as they disagreed over how long to extend the terms for the active multi-use permits.

"We all want the same thing but we lack faith in the system and the ability to achieve our aims," said Supervisor Susan Gorin.

The debate centered on how to incentivize multi-tenant farmers to apply for the conditional use permits and ensure Permit Sonoma — already strained by a backlog of pending applications — would not be inundated by the applications all at once.

Supervisors including Chair Lynda Hopkins and Gorin also expressed interest in finding a way to help small farmers get through the process quicker.

The board agreed to meet next year to discuss an expedited conditional use permit process for any of the multi-tenant permit holders now faced with the three-year deadline.

Supervisor David Rabbitt voted against the extension because of his concerns that the permit terms would be extended for too long. He pushed for the board to attach the permit expiration to the moratorium expiration date, Sept. 10, 2023.

“My gut tells me the longer you extend active multi-tenant permit terms, the more complex the legal picture becomes and I don’t want to go there,” Rabbitt said.

Gorin said she agreed with Rabbitt’s concerns but voted for the extension with the understanding that the board will be able to resume the discussion and make changes as the county begins to discuss a new ordinance.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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