Sonoma County set to consider cannabis policy changes to ease dispute between growers, neighbors
Sonoma County supervisors will consider Tuesday revising the rules governing cannabis businesses, hoping to balance the competing interests of pot farmers and neighborhood activists who don’t want commercial growing operations near their rural homes.
The Board of Supervisors also is set to discuss opening the door to recreational cannabis sales in the county’s unincorporated areas, where dispensaries currently can only sell medical marijuana.
But the policy debate about outdoor growing operations will likely prove most contentious, as critics lobby for tighter restrictions and farmers push for more flexibility. Under a plan proposed by county staff, smaller pot farms would be subject to a more thorough permitting process than larger ones, while residents could seek special zoning designations to ban cultivation in their neighborhoods.
“I think the neighbors will walk away probably not as happy as they’d like to be, and that’s probably true of the industry itself,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s vice chairman.
Rabbitt said he’s looking forward to a “robust discussion,” though he’s still unsure whether land-use policy is the best way to steer pot farms toward sites where they’ll avoid strong neighborhood opposition.
Tuesday’s meeting comes four months after a marathon hearing where pro-pot advocates and residents opposed to cannabis cultivation in their neighborhoods lobbied supervisors to change the rules in their favor. Supervisors at the time indicated support for policy amendments that would address concerns on both sides.
After further analysis from staff and two supervisors, the ordinance amendments have since been vetted by the county Planning Commission in advance of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
The proposed policy changes would allow the five medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Sonoma County to begin recreational sales in line with California voters’ 2016 approval of Proposition 64.
Tim Ricard, the county’s cannabis program manager, said staff will make it “user friendly and fairly simple” for medical dispensaries to start selling recreational pot as soon as next month, should supervisors sign off on the proposal. But the ordinance amendments won’t change the maximum of nine dispensaries allowed in the unincorporated county, Ricard said.
Under the proposal, cultivators would need to get a land-use permit to grow on properties smaller than 10 acres in unincorporated zones where pot farms are currently allowed. Use permits typically require a lengthy and expensive process with extensive public outreach before they’re approved by county officials.
Operations on sites larger than 10 acres — considered less likely to be located near homes due to their size — would need a zoning permit, which entails a less arduous process.
Residents who don’t want pot near them would be able to lobby for a new zoning designation to exclude cultivation where it would otherwise be allowed.
Conversely, some limited areas where marijuana growing is now banned could seek a special zoning designation to permit it.
Supervisors also are set to consider extending the life of cannabis land-use permits from one year to five and zoning permits from one year to two, preventing cultivators from having to reapply as soon as they receive their first permit.
Alexa Wall, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, agreed with parts of the proposed changes, including extending permit lengths. She’s currently trying to get county approval for her own grow north of Penngrove, seeking a permit for more than year.