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Sonoma County endorses limits on cannabis production, curbs on neighbors’ protests

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Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday advanced revisions to rules governing cannabis businesses and farms outside city limits that would include allowing recreational sales at dispensaries and limiting most cultivation sites to properties 10 acres or larger.

The Board of Supervisors rejected two proposals aimed at addressing an increasingly contentious debate over where outdoor growing should occur in Sonoma County. One would have allowed neighborhood groups to lobby supervisors to ban cultivation in their areas on a case-by-case basis. The other would have enabled cultivators to appeal to the board to allow cultivation in an area where it’s currently prohibited.

Instead, the board opted to balance the interests of the two competing interests — marijuana farmers and anti-pot neighborhood groups — by signaling support for a more thorough permitting process for smaller pot farms, which are more likely to prompt concerns from neighbors than larger ones, according to county officials.

“I’m hopeful we can come to a broad consensus,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “Having this (the rules) keep changing is really hard for (cannabis) operators and is really hard for neighbors who have no idea what the hell is going to happen. We need to expedite the permitting process to provide answers.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the first opportunity for the board to discuss specific proposed amendments to the county’s ordinance, drafted in December 2016. It featured one of the most heated policy debates faced by the supervisors this year. On one side are cannabis cultivators pushing for more flexibility to launch their business under new legal restrictions. On the other side are anti-pot residents who have launched a campaign to keep marijuana out of their areas, if not out of the county entirely.

The five-hour hearing involved a lengthy presentation and public speakers — board Chairman James Gore at one point said he received 56 comment cards from participants — including cannabis supporters wearing green hats that read “Support local farmers” and people opposed to marijuana cultivation wearing red hats with the slogan “Save our Sonoma neighborhoods.” The debate drew a crowd of more than 200 people who filed the seats and spilled into the hallway.

Ultimately, the supervisors chose to support a series of proposals aimed at fostering a newly regulated cannabis industry while encouraging compliance with strict requirements. The county has only approved 18 cannabis businesses since they began accepting applications more than a year ago.

Supervisors signaled their approval of the changes by preliminary votes, which require confirmation in a meeting set for Aug 28. The revisions include:

Allowing production and sales of recreational marijuana products in unincorporated Sonoma County in accordance with state laws.

Requiring any new cannabis cultivation permit applicants to operate on parcels of at least 10 acres in size, while allowing applicants with approved or pending permits on smaller parcels to be grandfathered in.

Extending the term of permits from one year to 2 and 5 years for zoning and use permits, respectively.

Establishing 1,000-foot setbacks with pubic parks, with exceptions granted on a case-by case process.

Allowing additional space beyond cultivation areas for use in plant propagation.

Changing the taxation rules to allow payment schedules better aligned with the outdoor growing season and reducing penalty rates from 25 percent to 10 percent in an effort to get more cannabis businesses to pay taxes.

The changes fell short of what neighbors opposed to marijuana cultivation in their areas had hoped for from the county. Those included a proposed ban on cultivation altogether or at least providing groups an avenue to request prohibitions in specific parts of the county, called exclusion zones.

Supervisors Hopkins, Susan Gorin and Shirlee Zane indicated the exclusion zone process was complicated and inherently unfair, while Supervisors Gore and David Rabbit supported the concept.

“I think it’s bad policymaking,” Zane said. “I do not want neighbors coming in here, going through an arduous process, screaming at us. The neighbors with money and time on their hands can do that, and the neighbors that don’t cannot. It’s a real social injustice.”

Cannabis industry representatives championed the board’s decision to extend the duration of permits to last multiple years, a change that will give businesses some degree of certainty during a tumultuous time of new rules.

“Overall, I think they made decisions that are supportive of the industry,” said Alexa Wall, board chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance and a Penngrove cultivator.

But barring cultivation on parcels smaller than 10 acres will favor large operators and push out the smaller cultivators who have traditionally made up Sonoma County’s cannabis growers, said Sarah Shrader, chair of the Sonoma County chapter of Americans for Safe Access.

Tuesday’s amendments drew a strong rebuke from several speakers, including Robert Guthrie, a west county resident who lives next to a 10-acre parcel with a large indoor cultivation facility near his property line.

“How in the world is that ‘neighborhood compatibility,’” Guthrie said. “This presentation today was a total failure.”

At one point, Rabbit tried to halt the county’s permitting process for new cannabis businesses until the county had established a more mature set of regulations to address some of the neighborhood compatibility concerns. But no other supervisor supported his motion for a moratorium.

In an interview after the meeting, Rabbit said his primary concern to ensure the county had fully vetted all environmental concerns in order to avoid a lawsuit from neighborhood groups opposing the local regulations.

California cannabis laws allow counties to establish local regulations without conducting a fullscale environmental review only if its rules tighten environmental restrictions.

“We’ve received correspondence from attorneys, and I don’t know if I’d characterize it as threat of litigation, but it’s out there,” Rabbit said.

The amendments were vetted by the county Planning Commission and analyzed by staff and two supervisors, and they’re just an initial round of changes to the ordinance.

County staff will conduct a more thorough analysis of neighborhood compatibility rules and other elements of local rules, a process expected to start in September that could last up to a year and a half and include a series of town hall meetings in various parts of the county.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.