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Sonoma County supervisors OK recreational cannabis sales but limit pot growing

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Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday voted to allow recreational sales to begin at marijuana dispensaries as early as mid-November and limited most pot-growing farms to properties at least 10 acres or larger.

The size requirement eliminates more than 5,100 properties previously eligible for cannabis cultivation, county staff said.

This action and other rules for the newly regulated cannabis industry are the latest in a series of amendments to the ordinance governing marijuana cultivation, sales, production and other commercial activities outside city limits. This process began nearly two years ago to establish local regulations for a cannabis industry that previously operated either in the black market or under the state’s loosely defined medical marijuana laws.

But the most pressing issue that emerged during Tuesday’s meeting was not on the agenda for county supervisors to consider: A newly proposed cannabis cultivation project near a portion of the West County Regional Trail in Graton. The proposal drew about two dozen residents from the unincorporated community north of Sebastopol who expressed outrage by the prospect of a large marijuana farm in the bucolic community and adjacent to the regional park bicycle thoroughfare.

“It’s the scale and location of the operation I’m opposed to,” said Joe Howard, a resident on Railroad Street, a dead-end lane where the project is proposed. “I voted for cultivation in Sonoma County where appropriate.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she was surprised to learn setbacks required between cannabis operations and parks don’t apply to the county’s trail system for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Sometimes applications bring up policy concerns and we can address that through policy solutions,” Hopkins said.

The outcry echoed complaints from other areas of the county where people establishing cannabis farms — in the open for the first time — are met with neighbors balking at the smell and public safety considerations that come with the plant, still illegal under federal law.

Supervisor David Rabbitt echoed his previous view that the county should stop accepting cannabis business applications until they establish clear criteria for evaluating whether a marijuana farm is appropriate for each specific location, with special consideration given to neighbors. His fellow board members have not supported his previous motion to do so.

“We should do it right and do it once,” Rabbitt said.

Residents with complaints about cannabis in their areas told supervisors the rules don’t effectively handle their concerns such as the proximity of cannabis to homes, effects on water resources and habitats. And some speakers Tuesday suggested marijuana shouldn’t be grown outdoors at all.

Sebastopol-area resident Robert Guthrie told the board he’s frustrated they have not established rules to protect residents like him from commercial pot-growing outfits. Guthrie held up a respirator mask he said he uses about every time he’s outside in his yard.

“This is my sixth time presenting in front of you,” Guthrie said. “And I see no progress whatsoever.”

Omar Figureroa, a Sebastopol-area resident and cannabis industry lawyer, said limiting cannabis operations to properties 10 acres or larger is a considerable step toward addressing those concerns.

“This is a tremendous concession to neighborhood groups,” Figueroa said. “It shows how responsive staff is to resident concerns.”

For the Graton project, the county received the application Friday from a San Jose company called Loud Enterprises formed by Jack Buck, whose family owns the 23-acre property. A representative for the company, Hadas Alterman, said she attended the supervisors’ meeting to listen and felt sure they could ease the neighborhood’s worries once they explain in more detail the steps they’re taking to protect trail users, such as keeping the outdoor plants about a football field away from the trail.

“We need to mitigate every single concern,” said Alterman, reached by phone after the meeting. “I know what they’re worried about and I know what we’re doing and there’s no conflict.”

Alterman said Loud Enterprises is proposing a cannabis farm using permaculture farming methods, and the plans include creating significant, natural barriers between the trails and plants such as blackberry bushes, hedges or trees. She and others from the company will be out in the community Saturday to talk to neighbors.

Meanwhile, the changes supervisors voted to incorporate will take effect Nov. 15, but it’s still unclear when the five dispensaries in unincorporated Sonoma County can start recreational sales.

Tim Ricard, the county’s cannabis program manager, said that on Nov. 15 the five existing dispensaries will be able to apply to change their permits in order to conduct recreational pot sales, and county staff hasn’t yet established how long that process will take.

The other changes include:

Allowing dispensaries to apply to sell cannabis products to nonmedical-use customers in accordance with state laws.

Extending the term of use permits from one year to five years, which typically requires an extensive review and public comment process.

Establishing 1,000-foot setbacks with public parks, with exceptions granted on a case-by-case basis.

Allowing additional space beyond cultivation areas for use in plant propagation.

Supervisors directed staff to research criteria the county might use for evaluating whether there are too many cannabis businesses concentrated in certain areas and other neighborhood issues.

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

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