Last week, Humboldt County’s Commercial Cannabis Cultivation unit at Code Enforcement sent out about 470 warning letters to residents suspected of unpermitted cultivation activity.
As a result, consultants who help farmers through the permit process say they received multiple calls from panicky growers, with one saying in exasperation that the county has “carpet-bombed our community again.”
For his part, Humboldt County’s Planning Director John Ford, who oversees the program, describes the letters as a response to two community meetings in Southern Humboldt during which people asked for the courtesy of a warning letter before they received an abatement notice, potentially costing them tens of thousands of dollars a day in fines. Ford says these are those courtesy warning letters.
The county is sending out warning letters to cannabis growers.
To some though, the letters signal the end to a way of life, not only for them but for their communities. As one farmer who received a warning letter for his 30 plants of cultivation explained, his family may have to leave the area. His kids go to a very small school with eight students. “When they leave, that school may close and the remaining kids may get bused out each day,” he told us.
The letters note that the county has observed activity they believe is cannabis cultivation. Ford says the letters are a request for a response. He said, “If it isn’t [marijuana cultivation,] contact us and tell us that. If it is, the county expects it to stop or [for the farmer to] get a permit and become legal.”
The letters in part read,
“You are receiving this letter as a courtesy to inform you of what appears to have been an unpermitted commercial cannabis cultivation operation on your parcel. A county land use permit and a state license are both required to legally cultivate cannabis in Humboldt County, and our records indicate that neither exist for this property.
While the overall cultivation area appears to be relatively small, it still requires an appropriate permit.
At this time you are not receiving a Notice to Abate Nuisance or a Notice of Violation …. but your attention and action are required.
You are encouraged to take one of the following corrective actions.
1. Cease the cultivation operation and remove any unpermitted structures related to the cannabis cultivation. For any unpermitted grading, apply for and obtain an after-the-fact grading permit to restore natural or preexisting grades.
2. Should your goal be to commercially cultivate cannabis, cease all cultivation, apply for and receive the required permits and licenses to cultivate cannabis before you commence any future cultivation.
For cultivation that existed prior to December 31, 2015, there is still an opportunity before the end of the calendar year to apply for a “pre-existing” cultivation permit.
It is a violation of County Code to cultivate cannabis without a permit. Code Enforcement staff will continue to monitor your property to confirm the cannabis operation footprint has been eliminated and that it does not appear in the 2020 cultivation season.
If unpermitted cannabis operation persists or reappear in 2020, you will receive a Notice to Abate and a Notice of Violation for an unpermitted activity.
At this time there is no obligation or requirement to contact Code Enforcement staff to discuss this issue or any potential violations of County Code.
If you have questions…you may contact the County Planning Department … .”
Ford said Code Enforcement was directed for the 2019 season to only send Notices of Intent to Abate to sites where the cultivation appeared to be using more than 6,000 square feet. He said these warning letters are for landowners with the smallest grow sites.
Ford said all the informal warning letters went in one batch. No more are expected to be sent this season. However, he said he hopes these letters will strongly encourage everyone who is still cultivating without a permit to consider the 2.0 permitting option now because there is a Dec. 31 deadline to get permitted under that program.
Ford says the Planning Department’s Cannabis Services staff are fully dedicated to last minute applications for sites with pre-existing cultivation activity. People who want to cultivate on new sites, and those who miss the Dec. 31 deadline, have to wait until the county has finished its California Environmental Quality Act review. Ford says this could take a few years.
The philosophy of CEQA is to be a tool to shepherd a bad situation into becoming a better situation. CEQA asks a business or an economic sector to name, explain, analyze and mitigate the environmental consequences of their economic activities.
Roughly speaking, because bringing a previously unregulated economic activity into regulation is seen to decrease environmental harms over time, CEQA exempts environmental review of “existing facilities.” Before the CEQA Environmental Impact Review begins, the county has given owners of existing cultivation facilities in the marijuana economic sector until December 31 to declare their intention to be recognized as an existing facility by applying for a county permit.
2.0 is only available to “existing cultivation sites.” Larger existing operations can get permitted under 2.0, Ford says, but the process has been streamlined for cultivation areas smaller than 6,000 square feet with an even easier matrix for sites under 3,000 square feet. Although the website does not make that easily known.
Nonetheless, Ford says the 2.0 permits are much more streamlined for cultivation sites under 6,000 square feet and even easier for sites that are smaller than 3,000 square feet. He adds that it is likely applicants with those smaller grows, who apply now, can be permitted in time for planting in the spring of 2020.
Ford notes that those smaller permits are going through at “top speed” and that roads assessments and some other items are not needed for cultivation sites under 3,000 square feet.
However, which requirements applicants from smaller farms do have to meet is not easily understood from the Cannabis Services website.
While the 2.0 application is only two pages long, including ample white space, it can still be daunting. After a small box asking for identifying data such as the landowner and the parcel number, the rest of the application is a checklist of documentation applicants need to provide. The list includes a roads assessment, an invasive species management plan, soils management plan, parking plan, plan for adaptive reuse of the site, a water right and 25 more items.
One consultant interviewed said they believed the county could have made the online application more user-friendly, pointing out there are no hyperlinks from the application to the relevant sections of the county ordinance or state law, which an applicant might use to learn what is required, nor are there examples of the types of verbiage or documentation that might fulfill each requirement.
Some of the consultants who help people through this process expressed less optimism about 2.0 than Ford. They agree 2.0 is more user-friendly because what is needed is stated in clear terms. However, they still see it as a complex process with expensive components. Without a road assessment or improvements, it still might cost about $30,000-40,000 to get a permit.
One consultant stated “the bar was set way to high” to ever allow existing cultivators with small farms of fewer than 100 plants into the permitted market. Pointing to the fact that former Sheriff Mike Downey had estimated the county held about 12,000 cultivation sites, the consultant said, “At this point, I don’t think we will have more than a thousand legal farms in all of Humboldt County.”
Another consultant said: “They now realize they left the small farmers out of the picture. Now I think they are trying to salvage them. But it may be too little too late as [the unpermitted farmers] look to their neighbors and hear nothing good about becoming legal. If people were able to become legal and have a good experience doing it, then the neighbors would be more willing to enter the permit process. As it is, people … tell their friends, ‘Don’t even try it.’”
Despite the challenges in applying, Ford encourages anyone who can participate to come in and talk to the Cannabis Services staff. Once the deadline for that streamlined program ends, the county will move into an environmental review process that will include the cumulative impacts of fishing, logging and existing permitted agriculture in each watershed and across the Eel River watershed while environmental advocates move forward with the process of listing summer steelhead as a species “in danger of going extinct across most or all of its territorial range” under the Endangered Species Act.