Nov 2, 2018
By Alexa Rae Wall
There’s been plenty of talk about cannabis and where or where not it should be grown. However, there hasn’t been enough talk about what a locally-permitted and state-licensed cannabis farm would look like in Sonoma County.
For far too long the images of razor wire and high fences, security dogs, strong smells, and sketchy behavior has dominated the opposition’s cannabis dialog in our county.
County Officials had to make a decision in 2016 to either spend valuable resources on policing the illicit market, or to regulate and tax cannabis and increase public health and safety.
Sonoma County chose the latter and the ordinance was created. Sonoma’s ordinance is one of the most restrictive in the state, requiring all sorts of detailed information and professional studies. Yes, where cannabis should be grown is a big question, but I think first people should ask, what does “Permitted Cannabis” mean in Sonoma County?
Sonoma County has received a total of 222 cannabis applications since they began accepting applications in July 2017. 43 have withdrawn. 26 have been approved. 18 of those approved have been through the Ag Department for 10,000sf or under of outdoor canopy. 8 approved permits from Permit Sonoma, 5 of which are dispensaries. 114 Use Permits are pending under Permit Sonoma. 0 Use Permits Issued.
A Use Permit application is required for development projects that are typically more intensive than Permitted Uses. Use Permit applications often require a public hearing before theBoard of Zoning Adjustments and/orBoard of Supervisors. Use Permits are discretionary in nature, and, if approved, will include conditions of approval. Any cultivation over 10,000sf outdoors requires aConditional Use Permit (CUP) in Sonoma County.
Cannabis operators have the most stringent rules of any plant or product sold in Sonoma County and the entire state. For the permitting process operators are required to submit the following documents and professional studies:
● Wastewater Management Plan
● Sediment & Erosion Plan
● Permit or Waiver from CA Dept of Fish & Wildlife for Streambed Alteration
● Hazardous Materials Plan
● Integrated Pest Management Plan
● Biological Resources Report
● Stormwater Management Plan
● Groundwater Monitoring Plan
● Fire Safety Plan
● Traffic Study, Noise Study, Odor Study, Cultural Study (when applicable)
Many applicants have been in this process for over 15 months. Not a single CUP issued yet. The barrier of entry is high in Sonoma and the cost is burdensome for many small farmers. Consultants and service provider fees for the above-stated requirements are the most costly. The county application fee alone for a 10,000sf Greenhouse CUP is over $15,000. Most applicants in Sonoma County have spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on application fees and associated permitting costs and studies.
Farms can only grow up to one acre of cannabis. The county restricts growing methods further (see cannabis land use table) and many parcels are limited below the one-acre cap. For example on a15-acre Diverse Ag parcel the largest greenhouse you can grow is 10,000sf.There’s no such thing as massive large scale multi-acre cultivation sites in Sonoma County.Of the 27 pending Ag permits it only totals to under 6 acres of cannabis cultivation. As of 11/16, the minimum parcel size for any cultivation will be 10 acres.
Cannabis operators must give the county 24/7 easement access to wells. Water wells used for cultivation shall be equipped with a meter and sounding tube or other-water level sounding device and marked with a measuring reference point. Groundwater monitoring reports shall be submitted annually to Permit Sonoma. Operators must also report annual water usage to the State Water Resources Control Board.
On July 1st of this year new mandatory testing regulations went into effect in California and required that all cannabis products undergo stringent testing for pesticides and other contaminants such as feces, mold, and insect and rodent parts prior to sale. Testing standards are down to the Parts Per Billion. In December, another round of regulations will take effect targeting mycotoxins and heavy metals, as well as testing to determine terpene profiles.
If a product batch fails twice, operators will be required to destroy the entire batch with proof. Operators will not be able to use any type of harmful or toxic pesticides in any way. Cannabis testing standards are the most stringent of any agricultural or food product in the state.
I don’t think we are there yet with this as an issue. With not a single cannabis CUP issued, we can’t really say if over concentration is even an issue. Not all operators operating now will get their Use Permit. Additionally under 50 acres of total cannabis cultivation area has been applied for in Sonoma County. This is compared with over 60,000 acres of grapes. In just over a year 43 applicants have withdrawn. Only 146 applications are active for processing in the entire county. Things are not moving quickly and they are not easy.
On Tuesday, October 16 the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted on updates to the cannabis ordinance. These included a 10-acre minimum, five-year permits, additional propagation space and more. I expect to see the county begin to move more quickly on processing cannabis permits after this vote.
Once the conditions of the permit are received, operators must meet these conditions at all times. Additionally, the operator then needs to apply for a State Cultivation License from the CA Dept of Food & Agriculture.
The following items are required for an Annual State Cultivation License: Surety Bond, Legal Right to Occupy, Cultivation Plan, Premise Diagram, Property Diagram, Waste Management Plan, Enrollment to Regional Water Quality Control Board or State Water Resources Control Board, CA Dept Fish & Wildlife 1602 Waiver or Approval, Hazardous Materials Plan, CEQA Compliance, Complete List of Financial Interest Holders, Lighting Diagram, Pest Management Plan, List of Members / Owners, Business Documents, Source of Water Supply, Well Log, and fee. The Bureau of Cannabis Control, CA Dept of Food and Ag, and the CA Dept of Public Health have regular site visits and compliance reviews for all operators.
Costs of Small State Cultivation Licenses (under 10,000sf):
Small Indoor - $35,410/yr
Small Greenhouse - $20,235/yr
Small Outdoor - $4,820/yr
On October 19, 2018, California’s three cannabis regulatory agencies: theBureau of Cannabis Control, the Department of Food & Agriculture, and the Department of Public Health, released modifications to the proposed permanent regulations for California’s cannabis industry. These are the fourth or fifth set of rules for the cannabis industry in the last couple of years and could change once more before the end of the year. Things are continuously a moving target for cannabis operators, who must be strong and patient.
The permitting process here is long. It’s costly. It’s stressful. It’s not always worth it in the end. Cannabis businesses are not all profitable right now. Times are tough. We need community support now more than ever to encourage safe, successful cannabis businesses in our county.
*All permit stats are sourced from the County’s BOS PowerPoint Presentation on 10/16/18.
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