Sonoma County begins to process backlog of applications for outdoor cannabis farms
On a rural 15-acre property in southeastern Sonoma County, what was once a bucolic home for developmentally disabled adults is slated to be remade into a new kind of homestead.
Husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Alexa and Curtis Wall hope to transform the Penngrove property where they live into a working farm for cannabis surrounded by pasture, cactus, roses, hedges and peach trees. Alexa Wall hopes to finally test the future of a local - and legal - crop she’s been pushing leaders to support in her role as board chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, an association of marijuana cultivators.
The Walls cleared a key hurdle June 13 when county planning commissioners unanimously approved their plan to grow about a half-acre of cannabis in a combination of greenhouses, outdoor plots and indoor rooms.
Their business model contains features echoed in about five dozen other applications for outdoor cannabis farms now on the desks of county planners. The Walls, like many other local marijuana growers, hope to compete against giant producers by focusing on artisan products, sustainable farming practices and a tourist-friendly farm to visit should the county one day allow cannabis farms to entertain customers, a model employed by wineries across the county.
“The only way we’re going to compete is if people see value in our flowers beyond how high it gets them,” she said. “We’re a family-owned company with biodynamic farming practices - Sonoma County grown.”
Two years after Sonoma County began taking applications for newly legalized cannabis businesses, entrepreneurs and their critics are finally getting long-sought public hearings before the Board of Zoning Adjustments, a panel charged with deciding whether all but the smallest outdoor farms can operate.
Most if not all of the outdoor cultivation proposals approved by the zoning board are expected to be appealed, requiring the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to evaluate critics’ concerns and give the final rejection or approval. A majority vote is required.
Wall has been an outspoken critic of the county’s slow pace, saying that it’s failed at its mission to encourage existing growers to enter the legal market. Instead, the black market is thriving.
Out of all sectors of the marijuana industry, cultivation has hit the greatest snag in Sonoma County. Dispensaries are proliferating in Santa Rosa and manufacturing and distribution companies are opening up without much concern, but growers - particularly outdoor farms - have been slower to launch amid costly regulations and searing resistance from neighbors.
“It’s really the outdoor commercial grows that are the most concerning and pose 99% of the issues we’re dealing with,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said.
Rabbitt said the outdoor projects, unlike those in warehouses, are the most problematic because of marijuana’s skunky smell and the potential for crime. It’s a cash-based business still illegal under federal law.
Southern California is emerging as the primary engine of legal cannabis production in the state, with massive greenhouse farms the size of 100 football fields in Santa Barbara County and more than 700,000 square feet of production so far licensed by the state in Los Angeles County. Humboldt County remains an Emerald Triangle stronghold for growers, with nearly 43% of the 515 acres of cannabis licensed so far by the California Department of Food & Agriculture.
Sonoma County is somewhere in the middle. The county and most of its cities allow some form of production, primarily in warehouses. Farms are capped at 1 acre.
The county has so far green lighted about ?22 acres of outdoor commercial cannabis cultivation since it began taking applications two years ago, including about 14 acres grandfathered in for existing growers. About 68 other projects with some outdoor cultivation elements are in the pipeline, many already facing strong objections from neighborhood groups pressing county officials to agree that commercial cannabis farms do not belong near rural residential enclaves.
The neighborhood opposition is similar to the type faced by wine industry players about new or expanded vineyards or winery events programs in agricultural areas abutting rural homesteads, especially in areas where agricultural lands have been bought up and transformed from working farms into rural estates.
But cannabis brings the specter of crime in addition to added traffic, noise and, of course, odor.
Rabbit is the greatest skeptic of the industry among the five-member Board of Supervisors. He believes industrial spaces are the most appropriate place for cannabis because they are more secure - a deterrent to crime - and can limit nuisances like odors.