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Sonoma supes put a lid on pot farming

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday unanimously rejected a proposed ordinance that would have made it easier for businesses to get permits to grow cannabis, opting for a comprehensive environmental impact report.

The 5-0 vote took place amid a torrent of public resistance including a threatened lawsuit, at least two opposition websites and a demonstration outside the county government center Monday. Residents objected to what they saw as the potential proliferation of pot farms in the county, while cannabis growers had hoped for eased regulations.

“It’s time to do a more extensive outreach to the community and a more thoughtful analysis of potential environmental impacts,” said 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the Sonoma Valley. The environmental impact report will take around 12 to 18 months, county staffers estimated.

Gorin and her fellow supervisors directed staffers to schedule a public workshop to discuss and develop possible revisions to the 2016 Cannabis Land Use Ordinance that currently governs commercial cannabis cultivation in the county. The revisions will then be studied under the environmental impact report.

The proposed new rules rejected by supervisors were more than two years in the making and were approved by the county’s planning commission in April.

On Monday, the supervisors gathered in a virtual closed session discussing the legal ramifications of the proposed ordinance. Opponents had threatened to sue if the county adopted the revised rules before conducting a full environmental impact report.

“This sets a dangerous precedent,” said Erich Pearson, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Sonoma County, about Tuesday’s vote. “To have county staff spend a year and a half, hire a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) consultant, hold multiple public meetings and expend time, money and resources and someone waves a lawsuit and the supervisors fold.”

Pearson, chief executive of Sonoma’s only permitted storefront cannabis retailer Sparc, said the agricultural community should be concerned about the board’s action for fear that crops other than cannabis might receive similar treatment.

Meanwhile, Sonoma Valley residents had plenty to say about the supervisors’ decision.

“Great news that they are requiring an EIR!” Judy Young of Sonoma said in an email immediately after the vote.

“I think the EIR is essential and will provide needed information to both sides of this issue,” Young said.

She added, “It will provide the Board of Supervisors the information they need to make informed and educated decisions regarding the scope of widespread cannabis farming in our county.”

In an earlier email, Young expressed concerns about cannabis farms cited by other county residents, including what she described as a powerful smell, as well as worries that cannabis farms would siphon off water that’s already scarce.

Let's keep Sonoma County one of the finest and largest wine producers that it is, and not the state’s cannabis capitol. Suzanne Brangham

Along those lines, Suzanne Brangham of Sonoma said in an email, “We Sonomans have been conserving water since January. Should our valley and county be sacrificing water to nourish thousands of acres of cannabis?”

Brangham said, “Let's keep Sonoma County one of the finest and largest wine producers that it is, and not the state’s cannabis capital.”

Concerns about water were also mentioned by many of the more than 100 county residents who spoke at the supervisors’ Tuesday meeting.

“Our board has unanimously recommended you do not proceed on this ordinance. We think it is unclear about the water use impact,” said Jim Masters of Santa Rosa, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County.

Fears of cannabis farms draining the aquifers under Sonoma County are greatly exaggerated, according to Pearson.

Pearson said marijuana plants need only 50 percent more water than grapes. Also, the rejected ordinance included strict measures that would ensure that cannabis farms would only operate if there is adequate water, Pearson said.

“This is the only crop in the county where you need a hydrologist to demonstrate there’s enough water,” said Pearson. “It’s the only crop in the county where the landowner has to give an easement to officials to come in and monitor the well but also the [water] meter.”

Many of the commenters at the supervisors’ meeting echoed sentiments from Monday’s demonstration outside Sonoma County’s government administrative center: “No pot on our lots.”

“It’s not about if you smoke it, it’s where you grow it. We who oppose large-scale commercial operation of cannabis aren’t anti-pot,” said one.

Some commenters during Tuesday’s meeting were growers who pleaded for help with the permitting process, some saying their applications for permits had been stuck in limbo for as long as four years.

“I am asking for a cannabis advisory committee,” said Sam De La Paz, vice president of the Hessel Farmers Grange and a cannabis consultant. De La Paz said many in the cannabis industry “have already lost everything” as the battle between the nascent legal Sonoma County cannabis industry and opposing residents rages.

The county currently limits outdoor cannabis plantings to one acre and allows them only on properties 10 acres or larger outside city limits on parcels zoned for agriculture. The proposed ordinance as written would have allowed more plants on larger properties as long as the cultivated area didn’t exceed 10 percent of the parcel.

As the meeting wound down, supervisors said that the board should have commissioned an environmental impact report before now and the board has been “spinning our wheels,” in the words of Supervisor David Rabbitt, who had asked for such a report years ago.

“We should have followed your lead,” Gorin told Rabbitt.

Board Chair Lynda Hopkins said, “I think the county does owe the community an apology. Going forward we need to do better.”

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