Humboldt County's largest cannabis trade organization has come out in opposition to a proposal to construct a 23-acre cannabis farm in the Arcata bottoms, largely on the grounds that the project is just too big.
"Historically, [the Humboldt County Growers Alliance] has supported many cannabis projects before the Planning Commission, while remaining neutral on others," reads the alliance's March 15 letter to the commission. "Previously, however, HCGA has not formally opposed any specific cannabis project in Humboldt County. The scale of the proposed project, however, as well as its violation of a number of land use principles that guide other cannabis projects in Humboldt, have led our members to overwhelmingly express their opposition to this project as proposed, and our policy committee to adopt the position in this letter by a vote of 9-0."
The proposal — put forward by a sister company of Sun Valley Floral Farms — would see a 23-acre greenhouse growing operation spanning more than 1 million square feet erected on a 38-acre former mill site between Foster Avenue and 27th Street, near Sun Valley's existing bulb farm. If approved (as the Journal went to press it was slated to go before the Humboldt County Planning Commission for a conditional use permit hearing March 18, with the commission's decision appealable to the board of supervisors) the project would be by far the largest cannabis farm in Humboldt County, and one of the larger legal operations in Northern California.
But the HCGA's letter is only the latest in what is shaping up to fierce opposition to the proposal, as hosts of neighbors, Arcata residents and environmental groups concerned about the project's potential impacts to area traffic, air quality, light pollution and water. Some have also argued that environmental review on the project has been insufficient and should have included a full environmental impact report rather than the less exhaustive mitigated negative declaration — used for projects where it's determined all environmental impacts can be mitigated into insignificance.
The project is being proposed by the Arcata Land Co., LLC. Though technically a stand-alone company, it lists Sun Valley Floral Farms CEO Lane DeVries as its principal and, in an interview with the Lost Coast Outpost, the Sun Valley CEO is said to have lumped the two companies' interests together, saying the move into cannabis was necessitated by Sun Valley's economic struggles. (DeVries did not immediately respond to a Journal message seeking comment for this story.)
The proposal would include 17.2 acres of light-deprivation greenhouses and 5.7 acres that would be operated as mixed light, meaning they use both natural sunlight and grow lights. For the mixed-light greenhouses, the staff report states "strict adherence to night sky standards will be achieved" with light and glare controlled by using "blackout plastic/fabric" to cover the structures and keep light from escaping.
In its letter, HCGA points to the staff report's estimate that the project will not demand any more than 1.9 megawatts of electricity at any time, which would be 1.7 percent of the entire county's average energy demand, according to a report from Schatz Energy Research Center.
Water for the operation would come from a well on the property, which an initial study has shown would supply more than enough to serve the project. The greenhouses would be outfitted with large fans and carbon filters to mitigate smell. If that proves insufficient, they would also use odor neutralizers such as Ecosorb, which bills itself as a "natural industrial odor control" system that uses non-toxic, plant-based products to break down and neutralize odor molecules.
Currently, the property has some greenhouses used to grow flowers, with adjacent fields used to grow both flowers and mixed row crops, according to a county staff report. About 40 full-time equivalent employees currently work the site — a number that would jump to about 115 if the cannabis operation is approved.
In comments to the Lost Coast Outpost, DeVries stressed the project is really about keeping people employed locally, noting that the domestic flower industry was already in a tough spot with international competition and rising labor costs when COVID-19 hit, wiping out 2020's lucrative Easter season, further raising costs and limiting markets.
This project, he said, "would allow our company to continue operations and continue the employment of 450 people. The well-being of them and their families is depending on the approval of this project."
And seemingly in anticipation of the concerns of some within the cannabis industry, DeVries told the Outpost that it's not "necessarily" Sun Valley's intent to be competitive with other local operations and the project "helps Humboldt stay relevant in the California cannabis market."
DeVries is certainly correct that other areas of the state are in the process of permitting large-scale cultivation. Last month, Santa Barbara County rejected an appeal of an 86.8-acre cannabis cultivation project and, closer to home, the Halo Collective announced plans to cultivate two harvests of 60 acres of cannabis per year on a 1,600-acre property in Lake County. (Halo's partner company in the project, Green Matter Holding Inc., has a sister company in Humboldt County — Humboldt Standard — that once boasted the largest legal grow in California on 8.5 acres in Willow Creek.)
In its letter, HCGA makes clear it disagrees with DeVries' take that scaling up is necessary for Humboldt County to stay relevant. First off, the alliance argues that Humboldt County is home to 30 percent of the state's cannabis farms and currently leads California in both cultivation licenses and independent farms by a large margin. And the average size of Humboldt County's farms is currently half an acre, the alliance writes.
"While it is correct that large-scale cultivation is occurring elsewhere around the state, with several 20-plus acre cultivation projects approved on the Central Coast and parts of Northern California, the existence of these industrial scale projects in traditional agricultural regions only increases the importance of preserving Humboldt's reputation for small-scale, craft and independent production," the alliance writes. "While Humboldt will never compete with traditional agricultural regions in terms of size and scale of production, it is well positioned to compete on craft, quality, terroir and a global reputation for high-quality, artisan cannabis.
"... Additionally, the proposed project site in the cold, wet and foggy Arcata bottoms, which is poorly suited to cannabis flower production, provides no conceivable benefit for the reputation or quality of the Humboldt brand, and only threatens to increase misinformation that Humboldt County has become dominated by industrial-size farms post-legalization," the letter continues, adding that the alliances understands it's not the planning commission's job to "vet the quality of cannabis" a project will produce.
It's worth noting the project as proposed is only possible due to the Heavy Industrial zoning of the property, which — in contrast to other zoning designations — leaves the planning commission total discretion to decide when a project is too big. That will leave the commission (and potentially later the board of supervisors) to wrestle with the competing interests of a company trying to save and even create jobs and a neighborhood concerned about impacts, while also charting the best course forward for one of Humboldt County's largest industries.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.