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Sonoma City Council extends cannabis ban another year

Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti, shown above in October with David Cook, expressed her disappointment Monday at the lack of progress on a city cannabis ordinance.

JASON WALSH,

With the clock ticking down on the city’s already year-old moratorium on cannabis cultivation, the Sonoma City Council on Monday extended the ban another year, to again give city officials more time to develop a long-term policy around the newly legal federally controlled substance.

It was the city’s third extension of the moratoriums – a set of three temporary ordinances prohibiting pot grows in the city – which was first placed by the Council on Nov. 7 of 2016 for 45 days, then renewed for an additional 10 months last December.

The previous moratoriums were set to expire at midnight on Monday.

“These ordinances are to buy time,” said City Attorney Jeff Walter, who urged approval of the moratorium extensions in order to give the council more time to draft its own regulations on marijuana cultivation. “If the Council does nothing, we (would be) left with a scramble” to create an ordinance before state law regarding the sale of cannabis takes effect Jan. 2, when the state is expected to begin issuing business licenses for the dispensing of marijuana.

The moratoriums cover the indoor and outdoor cultivation of both medicinal and recreational cannabis, as well as any commercial cannabis activities. Under state law individuals can still cultivate up to six plants for personal use. However, the City’s temporary ordinance places tight restrictions on even that, requiring security systems, structural specifications, written property owner consent and lighting provisions.

Additionally, beginning Jan. 2, the ordinance allows for deliveries of medical cannabis from outside-the-city businesses, as long as they’ve acquired a City of Sonoma permit.

The non-local delivery allowance irked Sonoma resident John Early, who spoke during the public comment period of the meeting to question why the city isn’t supporting local dispensaries.

Early admitted he’d been operating a below-the-radar marijuana dispensary in the City of Sonoma for the past eight years.

“I’m behind closed doors waiting for the opportunity to come out and participate in this industry,” said Early. “We have everything in place to open our doors tomorrow for a deliver service or dispensary. Why would the city explicitly support non-local business?”

The council, however, focused much of its discussion on the timing of the vote on moratorium extensions, coming literally within a hours of expiration.

Councilmember Amy Harrington was particularly frustrated that the City has had a year to prepare its cannabis regulations and yet “the work didn’t get done.”

“I don’t think the city took it seriously at all that this was supposed to be a one-year maximum moratorium,” said Harrington. “Because where we’re at it doesn’t show that there was an expectation that it was going to expire today. It’s expected that we’re going to continue this (moratorium) on and on and on.”

Harrington also questioned whether city staff was working against the will of the council, pointing out that at the end of a cannabis study session in September, she and Hundley had expressed interest in an option for a Sonoma dispensary, yet it wasn’t presented as an option in the current city staff report.

“I don’t understand how when you’re given the direction of this council – (which) did not include banning all cannabis – and yet here it is on the agenda,” said Harrington. “Somehow that’s been paid for researched and presented to us.”

Harrington said she would not support continuing the moratoriums. “I’m pretty sure if we continue it, it will be another entire year where almost nothing happens.”

Though Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti said she felt “compelled” to vote for the extensions, she echoed Harrington’s frustration with the lack of progress on cannabis regulations.

“This slipped away, and I don’t understand that,” said Agrimonti. “We have a bigger (cannabis) bureaucracy facing us moving forward and this is really making me unhappy.”

Last year, when the council imposed the original cannabis moratoriums, current-Mayor Rachel Hundley had been the only council member to oppose the temporary bans – presciently predicting that nothing would be resolved by the council by the time the moratoriums expired. Pointing that out, Hundley called it “confusing” that council members were now upset by the lack of progress on the matter.

“The fact is, this has never been a top issue for anyone on the council, which is why it’s never been at the top of the (agenda), which is why it hasn’t been done,” Hundley said. “So I find people this late in the game suddenly be these huge advocates for this issue, when all along I was the only one up here poking and prodding it along.”

At that point, confusion arose over how the twice-monthly council agendas are set – with Agrimonti suggesting the mayor and city manager meet regularly to set council agendas. “If this was important to you, you should have set that because you set the agenda with the city manager,” Agrimonti said.

Hundley refuted the notion that she plays a direct role in each agenda. “I don’t set the agenda; it doesn’t work that way,” she said.

But Agrimonti insisted, “You sit with the city manager and set the agenda and that agenda certainly could have been set at your insistence.”

According to city council resolution No. 25, passed in 2011, any council member may request an item be added to an upcoming agenda, a request that would then be considered by the full council prior to agendizing. The resolution doesn’t include special preferences for the mayor.

Still, Agrimonti was exasperated. “I’ve never been on a ride like this before in any other place and I’m just disgusted,” she said.

Harrington, meanwhile, said she took offense to the notion that she should have been more active in pushing the cannabis regulations forward. Harrington said there have been plenty of issues council members have wanted to take up, with few results.

“Councilmembers Cook and Agrimonti have brought up over and over the cemeteries, nothing has been done. You have brought up over and over housing, nothing has been done,” said Harrington to Hundley. “So when you say the city staff was focused on the priorities of this council, I challenge you … to find any progress on a council goal that’s been done.”

Added Harrington: “With regard to this council’s ability to move forward with passion projects, it’s almost impossible.”

The Council in the end voted 4-1, with Harrington opposed, to extend the moratoriums one additional year. Following the vote, City Manager Cathy Capriola said she did “appreciate the frustration” of the council, but stressed that there have been “a number of accomplishments” and that several issues in progress were at “about 80 percent completion.”

“The plan over the fall was to move through those things and we will continue to do that,” Capriola said, adding that city staff would review the calendar for a timely opportunity to “come back to council and give final direction and move forward on a permanent ordinance” on cannabis regulation.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.