CA: Sonoma County Supervisors To Debate Neighbors’ Concerns About Marijuana

Photo Credit: Christopher Chung

A high-stakes debate about where legal marijuana should be grown in Sonoma County comes before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday in a discussion about rewriting local rules for cannabis cultivation amid pressure from rural neighbors who want pot kept away from their homes.

Some residents have banded together to protest cannabis cultivation in their areas, saying they are becoming unwilling neighbors to a plant that still attracts violent criminals looking for the high-dollar crop. Cannabis industry leaders warn tougher regulations would harm those trying to follow the laws, and could force growers into the black market, exacerbating public safety and environmental problems.

Revising the county’s cannabis ordinance could be one of the most contentious issues to come before county supervisors this year, underscoring political and ideological differences among board members. Supervisors will make no decisions at the study session, but will direct staff to research potential changes for consideration later this spring.

“Everything is at stake. Money is at stake, tax dollars are at stake, livelihoods are at stake, community character is at stake,” Board Chairman James Gore said.

The meeting will be the first chance for the entire board to have a robust discussion about the cannabis ordinance since it went into effect more than one year ago.

Sonoma County currently only allows medical marijuana activities, and one question will be whether the board wants to allow local businesses to also serve the adult-use cannabis market. Since the county ordinance was approved in December 2016, new state laws have erased most distinctions between the production of medical and adult-use cannabis products.

They also will consider how to more closely align county rules with state regulations formulated over the last year, including the addition of delivery-only dispensaries, which are currently not allowed in unincorporated Sonoma County.

But no other issue is likely to draw as much debate among supervisors and as much public comment as the question about where cannabis should be grown.

Gore noted that he was among three supervisors who voted to ban cultivation in rural residential areas, a move designed to shift cultivation out of neighborhoods and into agricultural areas. But the ban has shifted cultivation out of areas where it had been occurring, particularly marijuana-friendly west county, into new ones where it is, in some cases, resulting in a culture clash.

Some of the loudest opponents to cannabis cultivation are in Supervisor David Rabbitt’s district in southern Sonoma County, including a group called “No Pot on Purvine” pushing for the county to restrict cultivation to industrial warehouses. Rabbit has said he’s listened to their concerns and is inclined to agree cannabis should be grown in warehouses only.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose family runs an organic produce farm, has said outdoor, organically grown cannabis has an important economic role to play in the county’s agricultural landscape.

Speaking for the “No Pot on Purvine” group, Autymn Condit, 22, of Petaluma said her coalition has generated thousands of protest letters through its website, which to her is an indication of widespread community opposition to marijuana cultivation in areas where people live and raise families.

“It feels like the future of our neighborhoods is at stake and our livelihoods are at stake — and that’s true on both sides,” said Condit, whose family helped start the “No Pot on Purvine” group with neighbors along Purvine Road west of Petaluma. “It is an important meeting.”

Cannabis industry leaders have said Sonoma County’s rules are already strict, and caution against stifling the local legal market and its potential economic benefits, from job creation to improved environmental standards to added tax revenue.

Samuel Magruder is chief operating officer of Petaluma Hills Farm, which has applied to run a 1-acre marijuana farm on a 37-acre property, an old chicken ranch with cattle grazing, on Purvine Road.

“Changing (the rules) will throw more instability into a young market that is just trying to come online,” Magruder, 39, said.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar has spoken publicly about his concerns that local regulations for cannabis farms are “onerous” and could potentially deter local cultivators from entering the regulated market.

A pair of home-invasion robberies in February and March brought neighborhood concerns to the forefront of public debate. A Sonoma County Sheriff’s lieutenant is expected to present crime data at today’s meeting.

Sonoma County Growers Alliance board member Tawnie Logan said she hopes the board doesn’t “drift away from good policy making” under pressure from neighborhood groups. Logan cautioned against viewing recent home-invasion robberies as proof the county’s current rules don’t adequately address public safety, and said the best deterrents to crime are professional businesses with trained staff, security guards and alarm systems. Logan said relegating cultivation to warehouses goes against some of the most important environmental reasons behind marijuana’s legalization.

“These policy demands, are they as valid as they are loud?” Logan said. “Are we talking about making policy that achieves our goals of public safety and stability in our economy and environmental protections?”