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High Hats

Residents square off over cannabis amendments

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CROWDED HOUSE  Looks like it’s time to start handing out the edibles.
  • CROWDED HOUSE Looks like it’s time to start handing out the edibles.

Cannabis industry workers, farmers and users donned green shirts and hats while red-laden members of the "Save Our Sonoma County Neighbors" group filled the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chambers as the board voted on seven controversial amendments to the county's cannabis laws on Aug. 7.

The amendments address zoning and land-use concerns and attempt to mitigate conflict between growers who face regulatory uncertainty and high fees, and citizens opposing the operation of cannabis farms near their residences.

In the interest of helping growers get their businesses going—many of whom have made substantial investments despite ambiguous policies—the board voted to extend the permit period from one year to two or five years, depending on the type of permit.

"It's a long and expensive process," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. "They should be given an extended term because we have enforcement. Let's give them the carrot."

Initial fees for cannabis cultivation permits range from $12,000 to $16,000, though that cost can go well above $100,000, as applicants must pay for a variety of investigations and reports, such as environmental and water use, and reimburse the county for any services rendered.

Zane also pointed out the generational differences between the two camps and praised the cannabis industry's aura of inclusivity and opportunity, especially for young people.

The board also voted to restrict cultivation permits to parcels of land with at least 10 acres and to enact exclusion zones where cannabis cannot be grown—based on objective criteria that's yet to be determined.

Conditional use permits, which are discretionary and provide flexibility amid broad regulations, may play a role in allowing ad hoc exceptions to regulations, if, for instance, a nine-acre property exists in an area where cannabis cultivation is appropriate.

Dozens of community members submitted requests to speak during the public comments section, and board president James Gore progressively reduced allotted speaking time from three minutes to one as the clock neared 8pm.

Those in the "neighbor" camp cited the offensive odors, the lack of penalties and the perceived threats to safety. The county has received 664 cannabis-related complaints since recreational use became legal on Jan. 1, 2017.

Bennett Valley resident Craig Harrison criticized the county for encouraging criminal activity and for its penalty-relief program, which granted amnesty to non-compliant grow operations.

Bill Frank, sporting a red hat, told the board that his neighborhood and the Adobe Christian Church near Petaluma were affected by the odor of a cannabis grow 1,110 feet away, and that the 300-foot odor mitigation ordinance was ineffective.

"The odor is a severe issue. You can smell it at the church, at the preschool, at the Adobe Elementary School and kind of over where our house is. We're about 700 feet away, and it's very offensive, so 300 feet is nothing."

Shivawn Brady, 32, of the Bennett Valley Community Association, said some community members were using the cannabis program as a scapegoat and objected to the neighbors' perceptions of growers as criminals.

"A lot of their concerns are coming from [a] drug war mentality and concerns of how this crop has been managed in the past under the umbrella of the black market—so it's hard to address a lot of their concerns now because the ordinance is written specifically to address that," Brady said. "There are so many requirements that hit those concerns that we're not really sure how to respond. I don't want to dismiss their concerns, but we've heard them for years now, which is why we've crafted one of the most conservative cannabis ordinances in the state."

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