PD Editorial: Clearing a path for cannabis farms in Sonoma County

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

There isn’t much middle ground to be found in a smoldering argument over Sonoma County’s rules for commercial cannabis farming.

Many residents in the county’s rural enclaves don’t want cannabis fields anywhere near their homes. Growers counter that it’s time to start treating the once-outlawed plant as just another crop in a county with a long tradition of farming.

On Tuesday, the debate lands in front of the Board of Supervisors.

“Cannabis cultivators feel like the future of cannabis in Sonoma County is at stake,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “Neighbors, they feel their very qualify of life and the health of the environment is at stake. I think it’s a very existential debate on both sides of the aisle.”

The passion is real. However, in our view, the changes proposed to cannabis cultivation rules will not trigger a green rush in rural Sonoma County.

Still, there is a good chance that they would land the county in court.

Work on the proposed ordinance started in 2019 and included town hall meetings and public hearings before the Planning Commission in March. The question confronting the supervisors is whether there is more to be gained by acting now or by ordering an environmental impact report, which could take a year or more to complete.

Expect an answer at the beginning of Tuesday’s public hearing — one day after the supervisors meet behind closed doors with their lawyers.

Demanding an environmental impact report is a common delaying tactic. In this case, however, the COVID-19 pandemic constricted opportunities for public participation in drafting the revised ordinance. Moreover, representatives of the cannabis growers told the editorial board that they don’t object. So the supervisors may not have anything to lose by ordering an EIR.

That said, we believe they should stick with their goal of treating cannabis more like grapes and milk and other legal farm products. California voters legalized marijuana growing by a landslide in the 2016 election, and Proposition 64 got an even larger majority in Sonoma County.

Prop. 64’s objectives included pushing illicit growers out in favor of licensed growers subject to environmental regulations, oversight and taxes.

Commercial cannabis farms are allowed only on properties of 10 acres or more. That would not change under the proposed ordinance. However, instead of the existing 1-acre limit, up to 10% of the land could be cultivated. Fencing, renewable energy and groundwater monitoring are required.

One change raising big concerns for opponents is permitting by the agricultural commissioner through an administrative review process. However, there are numerous restrictions that would leave applications under the purview of Permit Sonoma, the county’s land-use agency, and subject to a process that includes public hearings.

A second objection is odor. The skunky smell of cannabis fields is unpleasant. But the same is true of dairy farms and industrial hemp, a cannabis cousin grown legally in Sonoma County.

A third objection is setbacks. The county requires 1,000 feet between cannabis fields and schools or parks, substantially more than the 600 feet required under state law. Yet the ordinance would allow cannabis within 300 feet of a neighboring home. That’s too close.

Under its present regulatory system, Sonoma County, which once had an estimated 3,000 growers, has issued only 184 cultivation permits. To snuff out the black market, the county needs to streamline its application process. We believe that can be achieved without changing the character of rural neighborhoods.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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