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Sonoma County supervisors OK changes to speed up cannabis farm reviews

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday voted to streamline approvals for cannabis farms to address the county's struggle to permit commercial pot cultivation three years after Californians voted to legalize it.

Supervisors acknowledged the requirements for marijuana growers have been too onerous and expensive, holding back legal cultivators while the black market thrives. They agreed to shift oversight of cannabis cultivation from the building department to the agriculture division, a move that also eliminates the ability of the public to appeal cannabis farms.

Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar said the shift means cannabis farms will be vetted like other new agricultural projects, such as vineyards and orchards. They will still be held to additional standards such as security measures required given the high-dollar value and illicit market legacy of the crop and will need to get separate permits for building projects.

“This was a big day for the cannabis industry in Sonoma County,” Linegar said. “We treat cannabis farmers like any other farmers in the county - they're all farmers to us.”

Underlying Tuesday's decision was the federal government's legalization of hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp is identical to cannabis by sight and smell but does not contain the same amounts of psychoactive THC that gets people high.

The similarities make it a challenge to regulate one plant in a drastically different manner than the other.

The county is poised to lift its moratorium on hemp farming at a Jan. 6 board meeting.

Supervisors Zane, James Gore, Lynda Hopkins and Susan Gorin voted in support of handing the responsibility of regulating cannabis cultivation to the agricultural commissioner, and all said they were motivated to make the changes to give the legal sector a chance to thrive.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, the most skeptical member on the board of allowing outdoor cannabis cultivation, was absent.

Before the vote, Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she believes the county's burdensome process may have driven growers to continue selling on the black market - precisely the opposite impact they aimed to have on the industry and communities.

“I feel compelled to apologize to many of the people who got locked out by this very expensive process that didn't work,” Zane said.

“That's what concerns me, that we're pushing people to go underground by making this such an expensive process,” Zane said.

More than 360 cultivators applied to start new cannabis farms or legalize existing ones after the county first began taking applications in July 2017.

Many of those project applicants have dropped out or failed to pass muster through the county's building permitting department - a department supervisors gave responsibility for approving outdoor cannabis farms to give the county more discretion in approving or rejecting them.

So far that department has issued permits for seven outdoor cultivation projects, including a 1-acre farm in rural Petaluma that is the largest size allowed, according to department head Tennis Wick.

The agriculture division, which oversaw only the smallest projects 10,000 square feet or less, has approved 47 small marijuana farms, according to Linegar.

Linegar said they move quickly because while they hold new projects to the same county standards they cannot create additional requirements, which the permit department can do, and they are not required to involve the public in the decision. He also said his staff is better trained to evaluate agricultural endeavors.

“Either it meets the standard or it doesn't,” Linegar said.

The county collected $782,000 in taxes from about 40 cannabis farmers allowed to continue operating with pending permits in the fiscal year ending in June. In contrast, code enforcement division has collected about $1 million in fines from code violations involving cannabis operators in that timeframe, according to deputy county administrator Niki Berrocal.

Supervisor Susan Gorin said she has heard from residents concerned that the change means neighbors will not longer be notified about new cannabis projects proposed in their areas.

Linegar said the permits issued from his department are good for one year, and will be reconsidered if problems in the neighborhood surface.

About a half-dozen local cannabis industry leaders spoke to the board and urged them to make the change. No one spoke publicly in opposition to the change at the meeting.

Cannabis industry attorney Julie Mercer- Ingram urged the supervisors to approve the change, saying all of her clients seeking cultivation permits from the county have had a revolving door of planners over the years handling their cases and are essentially “paying for those planners to get up to speed.”

In contrast, Mercer-Ingram is part owner in a manufacturing company that is up and running.

“Cultivation is struggling here, but the rest of the supply chain is doing great,” she said.

The changes approved by the board Tuesday won't be made immediately. County staff will return to the board early next year to propose how to shift responsibilities and to ask for any adjustments to staff and budget for the departments.

The changes approved Tuesday are a significant boon to the local industry, which faces competition from legal and illicit cannabis and pressures from stringent regulations, said Erich Pearson, founder of SPARC dispensaries in Sonoma and San Francisco counties.

Pearson is still waiting for approval for his cannabis farm in Glen Ellen from the permit department and it's unclear how the change will affect his application to fully regulate his farm, which is operating under a temporary grandfather provision.

“We're big believers that cannabis can add a lot of economic activity to Sonoma County and can help the economy,” Pearson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the unit of measurement for the cannabis farming projects currently overseen by the Sonoma County agricultural department. It is square feet.

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