Nearly 8 million Californians voted to make cannabis cultivation, sales and consumption legal in 2016, and the following year more than 360 farmers sought permission to farm the intoxicating plant in Sonoma County.
Since then, only 184 permits have been granted in a county that at that time was home to about 3,000 growers. Under pressure from many of those frustrated farmers, the Board of Supervisors 15 months ago agreed to streamline the permit process and treat marijuana more like other crops.
But those rules have yet to be finalized, and they are now at the center of a widening rift between commercial marijuana cultivators and rural residents concerned about the future footprint of cannabis farms in the county.
On April 15, the county Planning Commission will take another look at a proposal to give the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office more authority to issue cultivation permits without public notice or a hearing, a main point of conflict between growers intent on going legal and rural residents who don’t want pot sprouting anywhere near them.
“The odor is horrible. There’s no escaping it,” said Robert Guthrie, a Sebastopol area resident who said the smell from nearly an acre of cannabis 100 feet from his home lasts from June until the fall harvest.
“That’s really the time you want to be outdoors,” he said, adding he would not have purchased his home in 2016 had he known what was in store a year later.
Guthrie, who keeps his windows shut year-round to avoid the heady odor, belongs to the Neighborhood Coalition, a loose confederation of residents formed in response to the proposed revision of county cannabis rules.
The group’s website — itstoomuchcannabis.com — asserts the “cannabis industry wants to open up 65,000 acres to new growth in Sonoma County,” calling it a step that “will forever alter our neighborhoods, environment and quality of life.”
A full-page advertisement the group placed Sunday in The Press Democrat makes a similar assertion, equating a potential future expansion of cannabis in the county with the extent of terrain now occupied by wine grapes.
It’s a claim without much if any ground truth, say county officials involved in deciding the disputed rules.
“I would question where that statement comes from,” said Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “If they have data to back up that assertion, I would like to see it.”
The coalition’s website includes a map of the county plastered with blue icons indicating “potential future cannabis grow properties” and a statement that nearly 100,000 residents will live within a mile of one of the sites.
A county planning document says the proposed ordinance would cover up to 65,753 acres but adds that it is “extremely unlikely” all available land would be used to grow cannabis. The document does not say how much of that terrain is occupied by wine grapes, the region’s dominant crop, or other forms of agriculture.
The county currently limits outdoor cannabis plantings to 1 acre and allows them only on properties 10 acres or larger outside city limits on parcels zoned for agriculture and resource development.
The proposed law would allow more plants on larger properties as long as the cultivated area doesn’t exceed 10% of the parcel.
It would also allow Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith to grant cultivation permits on agriculture and resource zoned lands if certain standards are met.
Approval of cultivation projects that do not meet the standards would continue to be handled by Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning and building agency, through a process involving public notice and hearing.
The cannabis industry, while supportive of some of those changes, has still found fault in the revisions.
Lauren Mendelsohn, an attorney with a Sebastopol firm focused on the hemp and cannabis industries, and Craig Litwin, CEO of the 421 Group, a cannabis industry consultancy, said that many parcels of 10 acres or more would by disqualified for failing to meet standards for slopes, setbacks from neighbors and streams and water supply.
Litwin said the water supply standards in the county’s proposal are “stronger than anything we’ve seen before,” including mandatory hydrological testing.
Cannabis critics say the new regulations, on the other hand, may not go far enough to safeguard the local landscape.
The Neighborhood Coalition’s full-page newspaper advertisement says the proposed ordinance “has not been fully studied for its potential long-term environmental effects.” It goes on to call out potential impacts on water supply and other scarce resources.