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Sonoma County supervisors pull back from revised cannabis cultivation ordinance

Sonoma County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to sideline a controversial measure aimed at easing the permit process for commercial cannabis cultivation while also calling for an environmental review that will take at least one year.

The Board of Supervisors pulled back from a revised policy that eased regulations for the cannabis industry’s sake but prompted a revolt among rural residents adamantly against the prospect of pot farms dotting a wider swath of the county on larger footprints.

The board called for public workshops to consider revisions of the measure approved in April by the Planning Commission. The revised rules were more than two years in the making.

But board members acknowledged that Supervisor David Rabbitt was right in calling years ago for an assessment of the measure’s impact by outside consultants.

“It is frustrating,” Rabbitt said. “We have been spinning our wheels and haven’t made much progress. The reality is we haven’t done a good job.”

Board Chair Lynda Hopkins candidly admitted the shortcoming.

“I think the county does owe the community an apology,” she said. “Going forward we need to better.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin said the future discussion and the environmental assessment need to consider “neighborhood compatibility” of cannabis.

“We should have followed your lead,” she told Rabbitt.

There was no discussion of the environmental study’s cost, but county officials are exploring the possibility that a nearly $1.16 million state grant might be available for it.

During a lengthy public hearing, rural residents reiterated complaints over the odor, water consumption and impact on property values from outdoor cannabis crops, while pushback came from people skeptical of their motives.

John LoBro characterized the objections as “a lot of scare tactics from people who hate cannabis.”

Sam De La Paz of the Hessel Farmers Grange and a cannabis consultant, said the comments by some opponents sounded like “antiquated reefer madness rhetoric.”

Jim Masters, a representative of the Sonoma County League of Women Voters, called for an environmental study because the proposed ordinance was “unclear on the water impact.”

Joanna Cedar of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance said the county’s cannabis decisions “have been made in a vacuum.”

“I’m pro cannabis,” declared an unidentified resident of Pepper Lane near Petaluma, a hotbed of opposition to cultivation. “I’m concerned about my family and safety,” he said. “I don’t feel cannabis is appropriate for neighborhoods.”

Amber Baker of Petaluma called for “a robust regulated policy” on cultivation, with limits on it during a drought. Cannabis should be grown in commercial and industrial areas and “not near our schools,” she said.

Craig Harrison of Bennett Valley suggested the county should consider “just limiting the number of permits” issued to growers.

Richard Rudnansky, an attorney, said he was opposed to any extension of commercial cannabis. ”Why would you even do an EIR (extensive study) in the face of the opposition?’“ he said.

“We have passions on both sides of the issue,” Gorin said following the public comments.

“Hitting reset is the best way to go forward,” Hopkins said, suggesting that removal of the cap on cultivation in industrial areas might help resolve the conflict.

Gorin expressed doubt the county has sufficient industrial area to accommodate all cannabis cultivation indoors.

“There are real impacts on people’s lives,” Supervisor James Gore said.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the place where everybody’s going to agree,” Supervisor Chris Coursey, acknowledging that as a former Santa Rosa mayor this is his first time dealing with the cannabis issues outside cities.

The proposed ordinance, forwarded to the supervisors by the county Planning Commission, would have allowed plantings in 10% of any parcel of 10 acres or more, doing away with a current 1-acre cap on farms on land zoned for agriculture and development.

It would also have given the Agriculture Commissioner authority to approve some permits without public notice or a hearing.

The measure was approved by the commission last month on a 3-2 vote, with Commission Chairman Greg Carr — who cast one of the nay votes — saying that provision was getting closer to his goal of making cannabis a permitted use “in a very broad sense.”

But the proposed ordinance “isn’t the quickest way to do that,” he said.

Conducting a detailed environmental study will take a year to 18 months and would require more staff during that period, said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma.

The assessment would be more exhaustive than the analysis of the proposed ordinance by county staff.

Wick said he had no estimate of the cost, but Assistant County Administrator Christina Rivera said officials were pursuing the prospect of a $1.16 million grant earmarked for the county in a $100 million state Cannabis Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant Program.

A statement by the Department of Cannabis Control said the funds would assist local governments in “more swiftly processing substantial workloads, including that related to environmental review.”

Rivera said the county would have to present a “carefully described work plan” in a grant application.

The county hopes to get more information in a meeting Thursday with Department of Finance officials, she said.

Nicole Elliott, an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom on cannabis issues, said the grant program must still be approved by the Legislature and “any applications from eligible jurisdictions would need to meet the intent of the program.”

County officials said any permit applications already in process will continue under the existing regulations.

Sonoma County has issued 184 cultivation permits since 2107 in a place that was once home to about 3,000 growers.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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