Impact of new rules are not easily predictable with impending water and fire issues

By Jay Gamel

The scramble to legitimize and tax a potential billion-dollar marijuana industry has been scattershot since growth and use for medical purposes was first permitted in 2015, followed by personal use legitimization in 2016, and then a 2017 state law that legitimizes both commercial and personal production.

Individual counties and incorporated cities can decide if they want cannabis to be grown and/or sold, and how and where to do it when they do allow it.

Led by county supervisors Lynda Hopkins and James Gore, working as an ad hoc committee since 2017, Sonoma County is proposing to streamline the commercial cannabis application process by moving it to the county Agricultural Division office, allowing over-the-counter approvals of five-year use permits (up from one year) through the addition of a new ordinance with no Environmental Impact Review, after deciding that the precautions included in the new rules will not adversely impact the environment.

Commercial Cannabis Cultivation in Agricultural and Resource Areas, a new county ordinance (Chapter 38), “allows expansion of cannabis cultivation sites on larger parcels subject to strict environmental standards,” according to the staff report prepared for review at the upcoming May 18 Board of Supervisors meeting. That staff report and supporting documents may be found at Legislative-Updates/County-Ordinances.

Since July 2017, there have been 34 cannabis use permits approved and issued, 17 of them under the Penalty Relief Program, which applies to people who were growing before legalization. There are 32 more of those in the pipeline. One of 13 zoning permits has been issued, and 166 of 281 agricultural zoning permits have been approved, totaling approximately 50 acres. The proposed ordinance has generated a lot of opposition from rural residents fearful of crime, odor, increased traffic, and general nuisances Cannabis – continued from page 1

stemming from growing marijuana.

Developing the new ordinance has involved extensive study, stakeholder meetings, at least four public workshops in March, an extensive hearing before the county Planning Commission (with two extensions to ponder the extensive public input and allow further discussion among the commissioners). It will be discussed again at the May 18 virtual Board of Supervisors meeting, which begins at 8:30 a.m.

At its April 15 hearing, the Planning Commission urged that a full Environmental Impact Report be prepared, but county staff still doesn’t think it is necessary and is promoting a finding of “No Significant Impacts.”

The new ordinance allows ministerial approval of commercial operations for parcels of 10 acres or more zoned for Land Intensive Agriculture (LIA), Land Extensive Agriculture (LEA), Diverse Agriculture (DA), and Resources and Rural Development (RRD). The new ordinance has minor implications about preserving wildlife, riparian setbacks, no timberland conversion, additional ridgeline protection, and some off-site odor control.

The ordinance has stiffer requirements for preserving cultural and historic resources (especially where structures older than 45 years are involved), developing fire plans to meet state rules, using hazardous materials, and screening for outdoor and hoop house cultivation. Motion sensor lighting will not be required.

The most substantial changes are an increase from one acre to 10 percent of the parcel size allowed for growing, with specified maximums for various size parcels. Rules apply to buildings erected after Jan. 1 of this year.

Setback rules are set out for adjacent parcels (100 feet), buildings (300 feet from commercial and residential buildings), and 1,000 feet from property lines of “sensitive use” structures like schools, firehouses, and other public places.

Perhaps the greatest inhibition of the new ordinance concerns water use. Onsite water must be “adequate and sustainable,” with limits on trucking water, and groundwater monitoring access allowed. There may be standards for minimum yield. The draft ordinance restricts commercial cultivation to Class One and Two Water Availabilty Areas, which would render much of Sonoma Valley unavailable to growers, according to county groundwater maps.

What also may prove problematic is a rule that “cannabis-related events and activities would not be specifically prohibited and instead regulated the same as other agricultural events and activities (through zoning permit or use permit process and if state licensing has been secured).”

While the permit term has been increased from one to five years, annual review and inspections are included, though it is not explained how these reviews and inspections will be funded, staffed, and executed.

Other elements allow operators to transport their products, but farm stands are prohibited. Some limits have been placed on propagation and “vegetative production.” Multiple tenants “may operate under one permit instead of multiple nearly identical permits.”

Changes would be effected to the existing county cannabis ordinance (Chapter 28) to conform to the new chapter.

Two full-time positions would be added to the Ag Division’s office to handle the expected increase in applications: a Chief Deputy Agricultural Commissioner and a Senior Agricultural Program Assistant. They are expected to cost nearly $328,000 a year, with another $42,500 for equipment and programs, all of which will be paid through cannabis tax receipts in the 2020-2021 tax year.

Comments may be submitted via email to [email protected], or in written form to Cannabis Program, 575 Administration Drive, Suite 104-A, Santa Rosa, CA 95403.


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