CA: Sonoma County Seeks Compromise Between Cannabis Cultivators And Concerned Neighbors

Photo Credit: John Burgess

Sonoma County supervisors voiced support Tuesday for striking a delicate balance between two rival factions — marijuana farmers and neighborhood groups — in an increasingly contentious local debate about where cannabis cultivation belongs outside city limits.

Board members signaled they intend to find ways to shield concerned neighbors from cannabis operations without stifling the emerging industry’s hold in Sonoma County. The direction came during a five-hour hearing before a standing-room-only crowd, the first full discussion about the county’s cannabis ordinance since it was enacted more than a year ago.

“We talk about where we don’t want people to grow,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “We should also talk about where we want them to (grow), and what can we do to make that more attractive.”

About 200 people showed up to the study session with supervisors, filling the seats, aisles and hallway. Pro-cannabis supporters wore green hats that read “Support local farmers.” Neighbors opposed to marijuana cultivation wore red hats with the slogan “Save our Sonoma neighborhoods.”

Supervisors made no decisions during the study session about the county’s cannabis ordinance, enacted in December 2016, but they directed staff to look into areas where the rules can be changed.

The county has allowed cannabis cultivation on agricultural parcels but banned it in rural residential areas, including many properties where marijuana was long grown. The regulation forced many operations to move and spurred conflicts with new neighbors.

All five supervisors agreed neighborhood safety was paramount, underscored by a recent set of violent home-invasion robberies with assailants seeking marijuana, cash and guns — cases that have spiked fears that regulated cannabis farms will attract crime because of pot’s high-dollar value on the East Coast.

But county supervisors stopped short of suggesting drastic changes such as banning cultivation in additional zoning districts or relegating it to industrial warehouses.

A compromise in Sonoma County could include giving concerned residents greater opportunities to appeal a cannabis cultivation permit in neighborhoods where water resources may be scarce or homes too close.

Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said he wants the board to revisit the ban on cultivation in rural residential areas, with an eye on whether some operations might be appropriate on larger parcels.

“We have to figure out where this green rush goes in Sonoma County,” Gore said.

Rabbitt, meanwhile, suggested extending the life of cannabis business permits, which are only good for one year. That would give existing operations greater business stability.

Any changes would take months. A next step will be for county staff to research the board’s suggestions, which also included whether to allow multiple farmers to have plots on large parcels.

A majority of the board — Lynda Hopkins, Susan Gorin, Shirlee Zane and Gore — indicated support for allowing recreational cannabis production in the county.

Currently, commercial production is limited to medical marijuana business activities. Rabbitt said he wanted to deal first with neighbors’ concerns.

About two dozen audience members addressed the board. Windsor-area neighbors Greg Dexter and Carrol Estes spoke about their deeply held objections to a cannabis farm near them on Leslie Road and the potential for greater traffic, additional water use and crime. Dexter asked his lawyer to speak to the board about the legal case they’re making for marijuana to be banned along the rural lane east of Windsor.

“This has changed our neighborhood,” Dexter said.

Several speakers later, Jamie Ballachino, the owner of the Leslie Road farm, said he’s been growing cannabis in Sonoma County for 12 years, and he said his 10,000-square-foot garden will use far less water than the vineyards that surround them. Addressing his neighbors, Ballachino said he, his wife and their partners understand and share their concerns about crime, and pleaded with them to hear their side, too.

“We have employees,” Ballachino said. “We have families.”

Autymn Condit, 22, whose family lives on Purvine Road in west Petaluma and is part of a “No Pot on Purvine” group, said the county failed to give neighbors proper notification about public hearings on the topic of cannabis, and they feel the county should have sent notices to a more residents about the cannabis businesses applying to operate in their area.

Several local cannabis industry leaders also spoke. Dennis Hunter, who founded one of California’s largest cannabis manufacturers, Santa Rosa-based CannaCraft, asked supervisors to consider the important role cannabis has been playing in the economy for years.

Hunter said he will be forced to source cannabis flowers used in his manufacturing business from outside the county if not enough local cultivators are able to clear the hurdles to get a county permit.

“I’m just urging you guys to come up with a solution that works not only for our industry but for the neighborhoods as well,” Hunter said.