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Cannabis Cultivation in Sonoma County - The Discussion Continues

Many people have weighed in on the decisions surrounding Cannabis cultivation in Sonoma County. Here are some of this month's opinions...

CANNABIS: How Close is Too Close?


Not many of us in this life have the power and opportunity to safeguard the well-being of thousands of our neighbors.

But, at this moment, you do.

I attended the Planning Commission meeting on June 28th during which changes were recommended to the Cannabis Ordinances Setback Regulations to improve Neighborhood Compatibility.

You now have a complex job on your hands. With respect, let me try to simplify it for you by asking you to keep one thing very clearly in mind:

The vast MAJORITY of residents in Sonoma County DO NOT WANT to live near a commercial cannabis operation.

Many of these residents have lived in the County their whole lives, some families for generations. Suddenly, their quality of life is being compromised by the hazards of commercial cannabis cultivation: significant loss of property value, crime, noise, glare, traffic, noxious odors, massive water use.

Many of these residents have resigned themselves to having a cannabis operation near their homes because of fear of confrontation and reprisal or because they feel powerless in the face of the massive amount of money and influence the cannabis industry brings to its lobbying efforts.

You can protect these residents - and honor the wishes of the majority of your constituents - by making two changes to the Cannabis Ordinances:

10 Acre Minimum Lot Size 1000 feet Setbacks

This would be simple. This would be fair. This would be Neighborhood Compatibility.

Many thanks for your attention, Patrick Ball, Sebastopol

Open letter to Susan Gorin

Prior to the last election for First District Supervisor, I was on a committee of five from the Sonoma County Democratic Club. We interviewed all candidates running for the position. We directly asked Susan Gorin what she thought of marijuana and where she thought it should be cultivated in Sonoma County for commercial businesses. Her reply: she thought it should be grown in industrial, self-contained areas and not in rural residential neighborhoods.

Do your research. Read the paper. Susan Gorin has not kept her campaign promise to our committee as to where commercial marijuana should be cultivated.

Carol Smith, Santa Rosa

Susan Gorin’s Response:

The interview occurred over two years ago when Sonoma County was in very different time and place in our discussions and planning for medical cannabis cultivation and dispensaries - before our County overwhelmingly supported the legalization of adult usage. I did not vote to approve Proposition 64 because I felt our County and the state were not ready for the intense planning to implement this. What we are experiencing now in the County confirms my original opinion.

As the letter writer communicated, at the time “I thought” that cultivation would be most appropriate for industrial areas. And in fact, I voted, along with the Board to exclude commercial cultivation from RR and AR zoning (Rural Residential and Agricultural Residential) where our small lots and close-in neighborhoods exist). And I have vigorously advocated for code enforcement to move a cultivator out of the neighborhood of the letter writer.

Industrial areas for cultivation are the point of agreement for most people in the County. But our industrial areas are limited, and in Sonoma Valley, industrial areas have become the location for wineries and food and beverage processors, and groundwater levels are continuing to decrease through overdrafting of the basin.

Although there are people who live in areas zoned for Agriculture and Resource Districts, for the most part those areas include much-larger acreages; those areas may be appropriate for cultivation with the stringent standards and regulations we approved on a case by case basis. Bringing unpermitted cultivation activities all over the County (and in every zoning) into compliance with permitting and taxation through code enforcement and the penalty relief program is complex and time intensive for Permit Sonoma, but this is moving forward.

The Supervisors will be meeting on August 7 and will once again have an opportunity to review where we are with permitting, relationship of medicinal and adult usage and alignment with state standards in Phase 1. At this time Phase 2 will focus on neighborhood compatibility, over concentration and inclusion/exclusion zones, which is a top priority for me.

Susan Gorin

Exclusion Zones

I am writing to express my concern about the creation of exclusion zones where cannabis uses are currently allowed. As a compliant cannabis operator in Sonoma County, I have invested tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours to ensure that I fully comply with the guidelines that have been set forth by the County.

The creation of these exclusion zones is a step in the wrong direction and would only push the industry back underground.

As a cannabis operator in one of these proposed zones, I have worked diligently to be in compliance with every request from the County.

Creating these zones would punish my compliant business that contributes to the financial vibrancy of Sonoma County as much as the other businesses do.

It is already extremely difficult for cannabis operators to find compliant properties. This is especially made worse by not allowing cannabis cultivations next to open space areas and regional parks.

This can be alleviated by having this setback recommendation apply only to parks with playgrounds with full flexibility to change the setback during a CUP hearing or removing this requirement altogether which would align with state law.

As cannabis cultivators, we have been part of Sonoma County for many generations. We take pride in positively contributing to our community by creating new jobs, increasing the county’s general fund through tax revenue, and dedicating our lives to creating medicine.

It is unfair to punish us after we have worked tirelessly to comply with the County’s guidelines at the mercy of an outspoken minority that has personal objections to our crop of choice. A lot of their concerns are already addressed by our compliance with local and state legislation. This includes our execution of a strict security program, practices that do not harm our environment, and ensuring fire safety.

It does not make sense to use potential fire hazards as a primary reason for the creation of exclusion zones. As cannabis cultivators, we are mandated to have on-site water storage, clear areas for planting, and maintain access roads. During last year’s devastating fires we assisted our neighbors, helped firefighters, and protected our neighbors’ properties.

We need to move forward with sensible cannabis policies and permit properties that are currently allowed to apply for cannabis uses to stay that way, especially those under Penalty Relief. An applicant will have to work hard to build neighbor support, and such support or lack thereof will be seen in a CUP hearing.

Exclusion zones create more questions than answers. Creating public arguments for or against areas being excluded or included will slow down what should be a very clear ordinance and if someone is allowed to cultivate or not. Neighbors change over time, so opinions on what should be allowed or not, will change as well. This is not fair to applicants, or residents in neighborhoods.

The vacation rental ordinance has similar difficulties which would be good to avoid. A convoluted ordinance would slow down local government.

A majority of the Cannabis Advisory Committee does not support Exclusion Zones. Besides job creation, cannabis farmers supply important tax revenue to the county general fund.

If the county implements Exclusion and Inclusion zones they should be applied only to areas that are not currently considered for cannabis uses. Farmers that follow the guidelines set forth by the County should not be disadvantaged by neighbors who have ethical objections to their crop of choice, an infringement on their rights as land owners.

As cannabis operators, we stand for positively contributing to our community. At our core, this industry and its operators are dedicated to helping people live healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Shivawn Brady, Santa Rosa

Outdoor Grows

People living in unincorporated Sonoma County are the only one that are going to be impacted by the proliferation of outdoor commercial cannabis grows. The majority of the people living in the incorporated cities in Sonoma County won’t be impacted by the odor, noise, and crime associated with growing marijuana.

All the cities in Sonoma County, with the exception of Cloverdale have banned outdoor commercial cannabis cultivation. Santa Rosa does permit commercial cannabis cultivation, but only in industrial zones.

Currently, the County allows commercial growers to obtain ministerial permits without any notification to the surrounding neighbors and without environmental review.

Turning Sonoma County into the marijuana capital of California with change the entire look and fabric of our county. There’s a reason Marin and Napa Counties have banned the outdoor cultivation of marijuana.

Candace Bennyi

County Fail

In County documents and staff reports, one finds somewhat reasonable sentences like:

Setbacks are often used to ensure neighborhood compatibility and mitigate impacts of a particular land use such as odor, noise, or light. Setbacks are effective ways to mitigate these impacts as they focus on site design elements rather than regulating ongoing behaviors.

Yet, parts of the County’s Final Cannabis Ordinance are so far out of sync with the above that it beggars belief:

1. The County considers the fumes from a 43,560 sq ft marijuana grow to be no more noxious to downwind homes 300 feet away than the fumes from a 100 sq ft grow. Where are the requirements for longer setbacks for larger grows?

Three hundred feet from an acre marijuana grow, or from anything within smelling distance, to a family room is not a mitigating setback: it’s a freebie to growers. County fail!

2. Then the County fails to protect those RR residents who live on DA borders and in the many clusters of RR neighborhoods the County embedded in DA zones. These residents have NO property setback protection from the nearly as noxious indoor DA grows. No setback is mitigation? Seriously? County fail, again.

3. And where are the protective graduated buffers in the form of limits on the numbers and sizes of outdoor DA grows on RR borders and on grows surrounding the County-embedded RR areas in DA zones? Again, County fail.

4. Now we learn that the Planning Commission wants to allow commercial marijuana grows in RR and AR Zones. Total County fail!

It’s as if the County is determined to pound square pegs into round holes to accommodate growers while unwilling residents are the pegs being pounded on.

The County needs to recognize two realities: Sonoma County is no longer a county of wide-open spaces, and it is ongoing behaviors from nearby properties and not some “site design elements” that can make neighborhood life miserable. That’s one of the reasons I’m not returning to the county after living in it off and on since 1943.

Is the County really that willing to invite lawsuits over a grower-friendly/resident-hostile marijuana ordinance?

Respectfully, R. T. Guthrie, Lakeport

Cannabis: Alternative to Pain & Suffering

I am the owner of a Cannabis business here in Sonoma County. My husband and I run our cottage-size cannabis farm. I have been observing this debate within our community over whether or not to, and where to allow cannabis cultivation. We have all heard both sides of the debate. We do need to refine the ordinance that will happen over time.

I would like to propose stepping back from all of that and taking a bird’s eye view of the current situation…

The modern world is in pain. Modern medical technology and modern society have offered us great benefits, but also left us with a robotic, mechanical approach to health care that does not take the sum of the parts into account very well. Our current standard medical model is not serving us well enough.

The current opioid crisis and the vast number of prescriptions written for anti-depressants validate that statement. People are in pain, spiritually, mentally and physically. We need radical, worldwide solutions to our modern plagues - CANCER, DEPRESSION, ANTI- BIOTIC RESISTANT PATHOGENS, and PHYSICAL DEGENERATION due to our modern sedentary lifestyles.

Cannabis is one of those radical solutions! Cannabis can help ease the side effects of cancer, and quite possibly cure cancer altogether if used at the right dosage for the right amount of time. The research is astounding! We have just scratched the surface of re-discovering what this wonderful plant can do for the world!

We are all being roped into this modern social experiment - ready or not. This is not easy for anyone who is passionate about either side. We don’t seem to have a choice; cannabis legalization is spreading across the globe.

The world is at a crisis point on many levels. We need radically creative solutions. We need to blend ancient wisdom with modern technology.

I am suggesting that we transition from debating over things like unrealistic 1,000 ft. setbacks from cultivation sites to houses to having real, progressive dialog about how we can achieve a balance around cannabis cultivation. Cannabis is here; it has been here for a very long time. The world is demanding cannabis for its woes. I suggest we wade through our fears together and spend our collective energy on creative collaboration.

How can we co-exist in this new era of clean as organic, ecologically mindful, fully regulated, taxed and monitored cannabis?

The SF bay area is world renowned for the steady stream of innovative, creative, progressive collaborations that start here and spread across the globe. Let's follow that tradition now. Let’s show how a community can come together and work out its differences in a collaborative, compassionate, progressive way. I know WE can do this!

I see the spread of cannabis legalization as one of the heart -lights on a web of evolving consciousness across the globe. Cannabis is a heart-opening plant. It is an adaptogen. It can encourage compassion, introspection, and thinking outside the box, or thinking progressively inside the box. The world needs to expand these very characteristics in order to deal with our challenges as we strive to learn to live in greater harmony within our ecosystem. Along with assisting in expanding worldwide collective consciousness and helping our bodies heal many of our modern physical woes, cannabis can help us create a more resilient community. If we are striving to be more self-supporting, and feed our needs ourselves, shouldn’t we be growing more of our own medicines? Especially a medicine that has a myriad of discovered beneficial uses?

I have been an alternative health care practitioner and a community health care activist for my entire adult life. I see the cannabis that my farm grows as being a continuation/evolution of that work. I live in Sonoma County; I want to provide my medicine to Sonoma County. We feel this is one of the greatest contributions we can offer at this time.

We will continue to tell our children that we work so hard because we are striving to do something very important that could help evolve medical care toward a more compassionate and holistic standard. We are grateful to have this opportunity.

Sica Roman, Spring Creek Farm

Stringent Testing

Testing standards for cannabis is currently more stringent than any other agricultural commodity. As of July 1st, 2018, there are over 90 analytes that are required for testing labs to quantitatively screen for. These analytes include chemicals produced by the plant (cannabinoids and terpenes) to agricultural and manufacturing chemicals that might have been used (pesticides and residual solvents) in the processing of any cannabis product. The instrumentation and training required to screen for these analytes are cost heavy and labor intensive. Labs were given a 6-month “phase-in” period to implement all these analytes, during which time lab pricing and turnaround times increased. All cannabis labs in California are held to a high level of standard. It is important to recognize that for a cannabis lab to remain compliant, the turnaround times will remain at the times they are now, until the labs have had a chance to scale properly to handle the workload of all cannabis products in the state of California. At Sonoma Lab Works we have already signed off on extra equipment to help maintain an efficient workflow.

David Chen, Senior Chemist Sonoma Labworks

Keep Commercial Marijuana Away from Our Parks

We are shocked by proposed changes to the Cannabis Ordinance that would reduce buffer zones around parks to allow commercial marijuana cultivation on park borders. We think the current 1,000-foot setback from parks to neighboring parcel boundaries should be increased to 2,000 feet. Instead, on August 7 the supervisors may decide to measure setbacks from the site of the grow instead of the parcel boundary, acquiescing to heavy lobbying by big growers. This would undermine the protection of our parks.

Why is the county rushing to authorize marijuana cultivation next to our parks and homes? It should employ the precautionary principle as for any new business model. If transition from illegal to legal grows proceeds smoothly, the county can then reconsider modifications on where grows are permitted, based on real life experience of what works and doesn’t for the community. Instead, the prevailing mood seems to be speed and greed.

Sonoma County is blessed with parks.

Hood Mountain Regional Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Jack London State Park, Trione-Annadel State Park, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, and Taylor Mountain Regional Park are treasures. Why endanger them?

Robust buffer zones improve fire protection, facilitate finding illegal grows, and maintain the parks’ undeveloped nature with a transition zone. Allowing commercial grows to operate close by undermines enforcement and the safety of park visitors who might encounter violence, both from illegal grows masquerading as legal ones, or legal grows near park boundaries. In rugged areas it is common for hikers to wander beyond park boundaries.

On Cougar Lane, which abuts Hood Mountain, growers often patrol their land with firearms and attack dogs. This intimidates neighbors and potentially hikers in the park.

Hood Mountain is a prime example of the need for strong buffer zones in remote areas for fire protection, where access is often only through adjacent private property, i.e. the parcels where marijuana growing is currently banned. During the October fires, a grower on such a parcel was harvesting his (illegal) marijuana crop when fire was barreling down Hood Mountain towards Cougar Lane. His priority was to save his crop, not save the park or the homes (he did not live there), and they moved boulders to block the top of Cougar Lane. Fire trucks were unable to pass until bulldozers arrived to clear the road.

The Press Democrat recently wrote “Hood Mountain stands like a battle-scarred sentinel, one of several well-known peaks that serve as silent memorials to blazes that burned hottest on steep, rugged terrain.” Were it not for the access via the private properties on Cougar Lane, the fire would have burned unchecked with much greater destruction both to Hood Mountain as well as residential homes.

Our parks nurture our riparian corridors. The headwaters of Matanzas Creek, which flows through Bennett Valley to join Santa Rosa Creek, is in North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park. Santa Rosa Creek begins on Hood Mountain, and eventually enters the Laguna de Santa Rosa and the Russian River. Buffer zones around these parks are essential to protecting and preserving Sonoma County’s sensitive watersheds.

Marijuana cultivators often use anticoagulant rodenticides, herbicides, petroleum fuels, nitrates, phosphates, and chlorinated hydrocarbons. The marijuana industry has historically flouted most laws. The county would be foolish to believe that all permitted operators will comply with environmental rules. The ordinance gives growers a 24-hour “heads up” before conducting an inspection. Illegal chemicals such as deadly carbofuran can be hidden until it is too late for the watershed. Assault weapons will also magically disappear before scheduled inspections.

Who wants to sacrifice protections for our parks and watersheds? Not local residents, neighbors, or park visitors. The culprits are Big Marijuana. CannaCraft Corporation wants marijuana grown near Hood Mountain Park. The Chicago-based multistate corporation Justice Grown purchased land in Bennett Valley in 2017 adjacent to North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park where it has a large grow.

These grows next to parks began illegally, largely because of their remoteness. Park advocates and residents were denied an opportunity to oppose them. The marijuana corporations made imprudent business decisions by choosing locations driven by the clandestine nature of their illegal operations, and now want to change rules to grandfather their operations that would never have been approved in a normal permitting process.

Big Marijuana is doing what the wealthy and powerful always do. Public officials should not allow them to compromise our precious parks.

Ironically, the supervisors have decided to place a sales tax increase on the November ballot to fund regional parks. Why should anyone support this tax increase if the supervisors don’t care enough about our parks to protect them from commercial marijuana?

Deborah A. Eppstein and Craig S. Harrison

Mama Told Me There’d Be Days Like This

Cannabis is controversial…and…it’s an amazing plant. Cannabis is a mystery and it is the Devil’s weed. Cannabis is an economic boom. Cannabis is a lot of things to a lot of people.

What it is NOT: easy to regulate for government institutions not prepared or equipped to regulate it with speed, adequate due diligence and an aim to building an economic future.

State and local governments in California have failed to carve a legal channel for cannabis that doesn’t eviscerate the incumbent players. It’s not their fault. It’s like we asked them to slice a loaf of bread with a rock. That means it’s still their responsibility and it requires a stronger brand of leadership to make the process work.

Aside from the tension between cannabis operators and cannabis opponents, there is one voice with an interest in the subject who has been marginalized in the process and that is the cannabis consumer.

Why do people consume Cannabis?

There are an estimated 65,000 plus cannabis consumers in Sonoma County. I surveyed a sample population of them last year and asked, what are you expecting cannabis to do for you?

Here’s what they said:

97%: I want to sleep better at night.

96%: I want to relax and prevent anxiety.

95%: I want to relieve pain.

89%: I want to enjoy the taste of cannabis products.

52%: I want to break down cancer cells.

67%: I want to improve my appetite.

One respondent shared, “It helps greatly with my multiple sclerosis”.

Others stated ailments like PTSD that cannabis provides curative benefits.

Some folks enjoy consuming for pleasure, like drinking wine or beer.

There is nothing to fear except fear itself.

The fear-mongering tactics by the Sheriff’s department nudging an all too eager media to promote scintillating crime stories, has created the perception that every rural home in Sonoma County is the target of the dumbest, meanest criminals on the planet thanks to cannabis. It’s not true by a long shot, but perception rules the day and irrational fear triumphs.

There has been an average of four violent crimes reported per year for the past three years related to cannabis targets. That is among thousands of the same kind of violent crimes committed; robberies of banks, jewelry stores, convenience stores and others.

The false fear factor has created a hysteria that rachets up the urgency and severity of opposition against cannabis cultivation.

Based on what some opponents have stated in public hearings, I suspect that greater than the fear of crime, there is a fear among property owners that their property values will decline where cannabis resides nearby. Just ask any cannabis operator who has purchased property in the past two years if they paid below market. They have paid premium prices, as have non-cannabis buyers. Cannabis is a significant economic driver simply because it makes land productive to such a higher degree (500 times greater) than any other crop in Sonoma County. That can only drive property value up, not down.

The two main complaints proffered by opponents, crime and property value threats, are factually false. What’s left?

Odor aversion, excessive traffic and natural resource degradation. The latter can be subject to factual testing like crime and property value. In short, the natural resource degradation claim isn’t true for legal cannabis cultivation sites. Period. The regulations forbid it. It is true for some illegal grow sites and they should be shut down hard. Everyone except the culprits agrees with that.

Odor and traffic go with commercial agriculture.

Some people like the fragrance of cannabis and some don’t. The same goes for the Sonoma aroma. I and many others suffer from pollen allergies due to prolific plant life in Sonoma County. It’s my responsibility to treat it or move to an area that doesn’t have the proliferation. It is not the responsibility of everyone else to quit growing stuff to fix my or anyone’s allergy problem.

As for traffic, there is no more or less traffic for cannabis than other agricultural operations. It just goes with commercial farming activity like wine grapes or swiss chard. Since the opposition can’t legally oppose other commercial crops due to right to farm, they can and do protest the only crop they can that is not protected by right to farm; cannabis.

Impact on Economics

Two years ago, Sonoma County was producing a couple billion dollars in cannabis each year. Through regulation we’ve reduced that to a small fraction. The negative economic impact is like extremely high blood pressure; it’s a slow, silent killer.

First signs of financial death and injury are the direct suppliers to cultivators. Check. Then we’ll see 10-20% declines in income for small restaurants and retailers, then professional services and so on. We are all affected adversely when a major industry severely contracts.

One opponent stated at a Cannabis Advisory Group meeting that she didn’t care about the economics of cannabis. She only cared about her peace and happiness, and that was true for the public in general. She’s wrong. Economics is a significant social system that unites us. And the “public” of cannabis opponents is so small a percent (less than one percent) of the general population that we shouldn’t conflate the two.

We need a long-term vision for cannabis in Sonoma County. So far county leadership has not stepped up with one. What we have in its stead is a protracted barfight. The bouncers need to break it up and restore order. Let’s build the economy instead.

Terry Garrett

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