Sonoma County begins to process backlog of applications for outdoor cannabis farms

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Where cannabis is grown in California

Active cultivation licenses issued by the California Department of Food & Agriculture*

...

Top 10 indoor producers (in square feet)

689,480 Los Angeles County

444,920 San Bernardino County

416,180 Riverside County

274,240 Sacramento County

263,120 Alameda County

182,120 Santa Clara County

164,060 Monterey County

129,560 Sonoma County

92,120 Kern County

92,120 Shasta County

* Excludes locally-approved cultivation operations that have not yet received state licenses.

...

Top 10 outdoor producers** (in acres)

220 Humboldt County

144 Santa Barbara County

50 Mendocino County

45 Monterey County

29 Yolo County

18 Trinity County

10 Sonoma County

9 Lake County

4 San Luis Obispo County

4 Santa Cruz County

** Includes greenhouse and mixed-light producers.

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.

Where cannabis is grown in California

Active cultivation licenses issued by the California Department of Food & Agriculture*

...

Top 10 indoor producers (in square feet)

689,480 Los Angeles County

444,920 San Bernardino County

416,180 Riverside County

274,240 Sacramento County

263,120 Alameda County

182,120 Santa Clara County

164,060 Monterey County

129,560 Sonoma County

92,120 Kern County

92,120 Shasta County

* Excludes locally-approved cultivation operations that have not yet received state licenses.

...

Top 10 outdoor producers** (in acres)

220 Humboldt County

144 Santa Barbara County

50 Mendocino County

45 Monterey County

29 Yolo County

18 Trinity County

10 Sonoma County

9 Lake County

4 San Luis Obispo County

4 Santa Cruz County

** Includes greenhouse and mixed-light producers.

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.

In an interview this week, Rabbitt said he doubts there is a market for cannabis tourism — something many local cultivators are gambling will provide a future for a local industry. But he also said that he will do what he can to ensure county policies help lawful cannabis businesses survive.

“Once someone is legal, whether I support the concept or not, I think we should make sure they’re going to be successful to the greatest extent possible,” Rabbitt said. “What’s good for Sonoma County is good for Sonoma County.”

A proposed 1-acre marijuana farm by Sam Magruder on Purvine Road in rural Petaluma was the first farm to receive approval from the zoning board. It was appealed by concerned neighbors, and so their worries and the project’s merits must be evaluated by county supervisors.

The neighbors formed a nonprofit group to oppose the project — No Pot on Purvine — and have galvanized a countywide movement to oppose outdoor grows, often showing up in numbers with red hats to public hearings. Marijuana supporters, in response, wear green.

In their appeal, No Pot on Purvine argued the zoning board “failed to consider the fact that crime in the neighborhood will increase if the project is approved” and “failed to give sufficient weight to the views of neighborhood residents” among seven other complaints.

The group questioned the corporate mission of Magruder’s company, Petaluma Hills Farm, arguing he and his business partners have shirked rules by holding events and allowing marijuana to be grown on the property.

Magruder, who doesn’t live on the Purvine Road site, has said they have done nothing illegal by holding parties and allowing a tenant to grow plants last year under medical marijuana rules.

Magruder said he has tried to meet with neighbors but most refused.

“No matter what you do, whether you’re a duck farm or a slaughterhouse, you can’t make every neighbor happy,” Magruder said. “That’s not a requirement in the permit.”

Magruder said county supervisors are tentatively scheduled to hold a public hearing on his project July 19.

The county has reserved dates for public hearings before the board in anticipation that most projects will be appealed.

Marijuana’s smell is one aspect of an outdoor farm that’s most contentious yet most difficult to control. The issue will be a moot point if the county lifts its temporary ban on hemp cultivation — a legal plant that looks and smells the same.

Wall said she and her husband are hopeful they’ve addressed most of their neighbors’ worries and that they can start growing cannabis next year — in addition to other crops. Wall, 28, and her husband, Curtis, 30, also own Moonflower delivery service in San Rafael.

“It took us 45 days and $3,600 to get our permits in San Rafael, whereas it’s taken 22 months and well over $300,000 to get before the Board of Zoning Adjustments in Sonoma County,” Wall said.

The zoning board’s approval included 133 conditions they must follow — everything from septic improvements and an electric utility upgrade — and they must return to the board after two years to discuss how the smell is impacting neighbors.

“I’m very proud and very happy that we got to this step, but it wasn’t like we went out that night and celebrated,” Wall said. “We went home and asked, ‘What’s the game plan?’ ”

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

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