Close to Home: Don’t allow commercial pot growing in residential areas

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Zoning serves to protect residential areas from incompatible land uses. Given that, a cannabis land use ordinance approved by the Sonoma County Planning Commission and slated to be discussed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday deserves a failing grade.

Lucrative marijuana cultivation has long been associated with violence, as documented by periodic murder stories in our local newspapers. Pot farmers increasingly obscure their identities by using deeds of trust to hide ownership in a secretive and dangerous cash lifestyle. They literally build high walls and undermine rather than build a community.

Most take for granted the serene and safe sanctuaries we call home in rural residential Sonoma County. But the quality of life and property values are poised to plummet if commercial or cottage marijuana is allowed and associated criminal activity materializes.

On Tuesday, the supervisors are expected to decide the most important issues on whether rural residential neighborhoods are suitable for “cottage size” commercial cannabis cultivation — 500 square feet of home cultivation and 2,500-square-foot greenhouses.

The county does not estimate the anticipated revenue from this level of commercial activity, and data are unavailable from federal or state authorities because growers are tax scofflaws. No wonder pot farmers have plenty of cash to lobby for loose regulations.

We did our own estimate to assess whether cannabis farms might attract well-armed criminals intent on stealing a valuable crop or the cash that it generates. A 2,500-square-foot greenhouse, which is bigger than many homes in Sonoma County, can generate millions of dollars of revenue annually. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that each marijuana plant is worth $1,000 to $9,000, depending upon the grower’s skill. Grower websites suggest indoor densities of one plant per square foot with up to five crops annually. Using conservative inputs of $1,500 per plant, 1,000 plants per greenhouse and just one crop, $1.5 million is generated. Any reasonable inputs suggest a gusher of cash.

The expedited process has surprised many of our neighbors. The background materials omit any studies of the effects on neighborhoods when commercial marijuana is grown. No one has analyzed how much work force housing is being lost to marijuana production. Without a full environmental impact report addressing such issues, the ordinance is challengeable under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Many believe that marijuana prices will fall with legalization, which has happened to some degree in Colorado. Over the long run, prices may become so low that the motivation for theft or even commercial production may vanish, but as the economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote, “Over the long run we are all dead.”

Right now rural residents are terrified about having a grow house pop up next door, and what may happen “eventually” is irrelevant to our lives.

Commercial and cottage marijuana operations are incompatible with neighborhoods. The proposed ordinance requires setbacks for “sensitive use” areas (schools, childcare centers, alcohol and drug treatment facilities, parks), but our eclectic neighborhoods include families with in-home childcare, home schools, school bus stops, the elderly in the twilight of their lives and the disabled. These too are sensitive use areas where all rural residents should feel nurtured and protected.

These considerations highlight the incompatibility of commercial and cottage marijuana operations with rural residential neighborhoods where there are no positive outcomes for residents.

We urge the supervisors to oppose allowing commercial and cottage cannabis operations in rural residential areas. The county could adopt a moratorium such as the cities of Sonoma, Windsor and Healdsburg have. Why not slow down and let Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties be guinea pigs for this dangerous experiment foisted on rural residents? Please contact your supervisor.

Kathleen Whitener lives in west Santa Rosa, is a retired logistics manager and a spokesperson for Sonoma County Residents for Responsible Cannabis Growing. Craig S. Harrison is a retired lawyer who lives in Bennett Valley.

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