CA: Humboldt County Vets Capping Cannabis Farms, Applying Retroactive Rules

Photo Credit: Humbolt County Sheriff's Dept.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday sought to tackle some of the more contentious issues that have arisen in its bid to expand the local cannabis industry.

These issues included capping the number of marijuana farms and whether to impose new rules — and costs — on some cannabis farms that have already been approved through the legal process or are in the process of being approved.

“It’s like getting your house halfway built and then realizing you have to move it,” 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn said about the retroactive rules.

The board had previously discussed the draft cannabis ordinance — which would increase the scale and scope of the industry — in March. While the board had previously hoped to pass the new industry rules Tuesday, the board’s review is set to continue at its May 8 meeting.

‘A tough call’

Last year, Fortuna residents and city officials expressed outrage when marijuana farms were being approved just outside city limits without them being able to weigh in. For some, the frustration was about the odor. For others, the farms clashed with Fortuna’s ban on marijuana businesses.

The county had approved these new cannabis farms through zoning clearance certificates, which don’t require a public hearing.

While these farms are following the rules the board had approved in 2016, the majority of the board on Tuesday was leaning toward requiring nine existing farms and more than 140 permit applicants to comply with new rules that will require them to make potentially significant and expensive changes to their operations.

While recognizing that many of the farmers have already made significant investments to get their farms approved or work through the permitting process, 2nd District Estelle Fennell said she was in favor of the retroactive rules as a way to address community conflicts, especially odor complaints.

“It’s a tough call,” she said.

Board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg was more apprehensive about applying the retroactive rules, saying, “To rip out that rug out from under them now, that just doesn’t seem fair to me.”

The odor complaints are not only limited to Fortuna. Fieldbrook Winery co-owner Judy Hodgson said she is certain that a proposed cannabis farm near her winery will curtail her business.

“Wine tasting is not compatible with a large marijuana operation like this,” she said. “I don’t know anyone that would be willing to book a wedding across from a grow like this.”

The county is also proposing to impose retroactive rules on outdoor and mixed-light farms that have already been permitted within a city’s sphere of influence or within 1,000 feet of a city, tribal reservation and certain communities. These farmers would be mandated to do one of the following: move their cultivation area at least 600 feet away from neighboring residences; moving their operations into an enclosed, odor-controlled structure; go through the permitting process again but instead obtain a conditional use permit, which requires a full public hearing; or relinquish the permit altogether or relocate under the county’s farm relocation program.

Nine existing farms would be affected by this, according to county staff. The farm owner would have 18 months to make one of these changes.

The board also leaned toward requiring the 144 prospective farmers who have already applied for zoning clearance certificates near cities or within spheres of influence to comply with the new rules halfway through the process.

Bohn said these applicants have probably already invested tens of thousands of dollars working through the current permitting process, and said the new requirements would “reinvent the wheel completely for them.”

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson supported the retroactive rules. He further called for the nine existing farms to be required to have 100 percent of their power source come from renewable energy sources — a requirement also imposed on other cannabis businesses. Wilson said constituents had brought up concerns about generator noise near neighborhoods.

Some farmers who spoke to the Times-Standard previously said the waiting time to have PG&E connect grid power source to their farms is at least a year.

Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass expressed some apprehension about requiring the farms to go through a new process, but ultimately said she would support the retroactive requirements.

Fortuna’s interim city manager Merritt Perry said that the city is not satisfied with these new requirements and called for the county to implement a complete ban of new grows within the city’s sphere of influence.

Grow cap

The supervisors expressed support for capping the total number of cannabis farms in the unincorporated area at 3,000 or 3,500 in order to address concerns about stress to local watersheds. The majority of the board also expressed support for capping the amount of cultivation area a person or business can own in the county to 4 acres rather than the 8 acres that county staff had proposed.

County staff had originally recommended capping the number of grows at 5,000 spread across 12 local watersheds, but reduced the number to address concerns raised by state agencies, tribes and environmental groups.

County Planning and Building Department Director John Ford said that the cap was lowered because it does not allow new grows in critical watersheds. The 3,000 grow cap that county staff recommended essentially doubled the total number of current cannabis permit applications that were turned in under the county’s current ordinance.

Ford said water quality and flow studies will be conducted to determine if the watersheds can support more grows, with the board being able to revisit the cap next year.

“We are trying to carve out and limit to what happens in those watersheds and then be able to monitor that and look at that,” Ford said. “… There is no data set that exists in order to do that.”

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations watershed conservation director Vivian Helliwell and others called on the county to conduct a watershed analysis first before allowing new grows.

“It’s not just cannabis,” she said. “Any land use has to come within the carrying capacity of these watersheds and support the beneficial uses, including fishing.”

Several Yurok Tribe members and representatives called on the board not to allow any cannabis businesses to be allowed within the tribe’s ancestral land without the tribe’s input. The size of the tribe’s ancestral territory is significantly larger than its current reservation boundaries along the Klamath River.

Sundberg and Fennell were appointed to an ad hoc committee to continue discussions with the tribe and bring back more information in May.

Some speakers expressed support for the cap, but were concerned about the county’s ability to enforce its own rules given the available staff and the scale of the black market.

Earlier in the day, the board was set to consider a contract with a company that would provide satellite imagery to help with enforcement efforts. Ford said the most recent aerial photos the county has are from 2016, with a few from 2017. The contract was pulled and is set to be brought back at a later meeting.

Willow Creek resident E.B. Duggan said the county’s ordinance “doesn’t mean do-diddly-beans if it’s not enforced properly.”