Close to Home: Sonoma County’s misguided planning for cannabis

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On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to address the severe compatibility problems with cannabis cultivation in rural neighborhoods. Last year, the supervisors committed to fixing these problems but ultimately refused to do much.

The supervisors need to acknowledge the fundamental issue. The reason there are so many “problem sites” is that they turned the planning process upside down. Even if all current problem sites were denied permits, there will be more applications for cannabis cultivation at different problem sites.

The proper way to proceed is to identify sites that are suitable, based on a set of planning criteria, rather than identifying problem sites after a permit is requested. That is how all other planning is done. In preparing general plans and zoning maps, planners identify those areas where specified uses are environmentally suitable and compatible with surrounding uses. Thus, we end up identifying commercial zones, industrial zones, multi-family residential zones (apartments and condos) and residential zones. Those areas not so identified don’t allow any of these uses.

The county should return to normal zoning. It should evaluate environmental and land use information and identify areas where cannabis grows are suitable, based on such criteria as:

— Availability of water, power, sewer and storm water drainage.

— Groundwater basins where water use won’t adversely affect the environment.

— Adequate and safe road access.

— Avoiding incompatible residential sites, schools, parks, trails and recreation sites.

— Accessibility to law enforcement.

— Avoiding risks of wildfire, landslides, flooding and other natural hazards.

— Avoiding historic and archaeological resources and important wildlife corridors and habitat, including that of endangered or sensitive species.

Once areas meeting these criteria are mapped, planners should assess how much suitable land can be projected as reasonably necessary to meet current and future demand.

The proposed suitable areas can then considered in hearings, and after public comment the planners can select those areas where permits for grows will be considered.

From there, individual proposals could be evaluated to make sure that they meet all necessary criteria. They would go through the conditional use permit and California Environmental Quality Act processes so the public can comment in public hearings.

This is how planning has always been done. The county’s failure to do this is why we have problems with cannabis grows in unsuitable areas. This is the first time that the county has undertaken land use planning by asking the public to identify problem sites during the permit process. The county’s approach is like allowing anyone to locate a junkyard anywhere unless enough neighbors complain.

The supervisors should never have assigned the planning effort to the Economic Development Department instead of Permit Sonoma. Economic Development has no expertise to manage land use planning for cannabis grows or anything else.

The county falsely assumed that cannabis grows are “just agriculture.” That’s like saying pig farms and dairies are “just agriculture.”

Most of the remote places proposed for commercial cannabis cultivation would otherwise only accommodate extensive agriculture such as a few cattle. Growers use imported soil, heated containers and commercial structures with artificial lighting. This isn’t normal agriculture.

Once the county assumed cannabis production is the equivalent of a vegetable garden and ignored the huge water use, fire hazards, multiple employees, traffic, pesticide use, noxious odors, crime and a plethora of other impacts that always accompany cannabis production, the planning process went awry.

To address compatibility problems with rural neighborhoods, the supervisors need to acknowledge the impacts and quit trying to fit the round cannabis peg in the square “just agriculture” hole.

Ray Krauss is a retired environmental planner who lives in the Mark West Watershed.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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