OPINION - Is Commercial Marijuana Good for Bennett Valley Residents?
By Craig S. Harrison
Six limited liability companies (LLCs) have applied for permits to grow cannabis within the Bennett Valley Area Plan. The well-funded promoters of the marijuana industry told the Board of Supervisors in late 2016 that most applicants for permits under the Sonoma County Cannabis Land Use Ordinance would be “mom and pop” farmers who have been growing cannabis for years. As the table indicates, most permit applicants in Bennett Valley are investors who lack ties to our community.
The ordinance coddles growers because the county got snookered into believing that the ordinance would bring small growers “out of the shadows.” The applications for two of the properties (4944 Bennett Valley Road and 4050 Grange Road) are not complete, but the county is allowing the operators to grow marijuana without a permit. What other business is allowed to function for over a year while waiting for a permit? Who builds a house without a permit?
Four parcels are zoned DA (diversified agriculture), a category that seems indistinguishable in practice from “rural residential” zoning where commercial cannabis is banned. The two parcels on Grange Road are zoned RRD (resources and rural development), a land use category that, among other things, is intended to protect the watershed and habitat for fish and wildlife. Marijuana farming is water-intensive, and seems on its face to be an incompatible use in RRD.
Each applicant is an LLC, which can be a smarmy means of avoiding disclosure to the public of its investors. An LLC or trust holds title to each parcel, and title changed for five of the six properties in 2017. How many genuine “mom and pop” farmers own their homes and farms as an LLC? The addresses on file at Permit Sonoma and in country real property records indicate the LLCs are based in Chicago, San Mateo, Tiburon, and San Francisco. Two parcels have some connection to Sonoma County. Investors from afar are “coming out of the shadows.”
The addresses of three LLCs are mail drops at UPS stores. We know little about the investors, who propose to convert Bennett Valley into marijuana farms for personal profit. We do know that few live here. Their primary concern is that they can cash in while the price of cannabis remains above the $1,200 per pound reported by Cannabis Benchmarks (cannabisbenchmarks.com/weekly-report), which Marijuana Business Daily (mjbizdaily.com/will-californias-regulated-market-see-drop-500-pound-wholesale-cannabis/ ) predicts will drop to $500 per pound. Do the investors care how their weed farms affect our communities? Not so much.
The purpose of zoning is to protect communities from incompatible land uses. Marijuana cultivation is lucrative. Because growers can possess huge amounts of cash and their valuable product is portable, it has long been associated with crime and violence. In February, two horrific home invasions and a murder in Santa Rosa dominated local headlines. In September, two men were killed in Forestville. Eight of the last eleven homicides in Sonoma County have been marijuana-related, and the sheriff told the board of supervisors that prosecutions can cost the county $1 million apiece. Will we really have “tax benefits” from marijuana farms?
As our county heals and rebuilds from the October fires, many rural neighborhoods take for granted the serene and safe sanctuary we call home. However, in the 1980s methamphetamine laboratories were operating in Bennett Valley, including three residences near me that were purchased in foreclosure sales after being trashed. There are similar stories elsewhere. If neighborhoods aren’t vigilant, our quality of life and property values could deteriorate if the criminal activity associated with commercial marijuana materializes. Marijuana farmers are required to literally construct walls, and they undermine rather than build our communities.
Fifty-seven percent of California voters approved Proposition 64, which legalized the statewide commercial cultivation of marijuana while allowing local authorities to limit it with zoning. (It remains illegal under federal law). Residents of the most enthusiastic counties—San Francisco (75%), Marin (70%), and Alameda (66%)—are unlikely to have commercial farms in their neighborhoods, and eighteen rural counties rejected the measure. It would be interesting to know whether the 70% of Sonoma County voters who live in its cities voted differently from those residing in county lands who are the ones stuck with living near the cannabis farms. The ordinance allows for the creation of exclusion zones. Why not let the residents of concerned communities decide by ballot whether this activity is appropriate where they live, especially where area plans already exist? It doesn’t pass the fairness test for urbanites to shove cannabis farms down the throats of rural residents.
Craig S. Harrison is the President of the Bennett Valley Community Association.