A small crowd clustered at the top of the stairs of the Humboldt County Planning Department on the morning of Feb. 26, waiting for the doors to open. In their hands, they clutched land use permit applications for medical marijuana cultivation.
"We've been gearing up all week for a big day," said interim Planning Director Rob Wall, adding that extra staff were on duty to help local farmers file.
"You guys are taking cash, right?" asked someone in line, prompting a ripple of laughter.
Wall assured them that they were. The $150 deposit paid to the department goes toward a two-hour meeting with a county planner to discuss the application and any changes that need to be made to the operation seeking licensing.
A young couple from Willow Creek, who only wanted to give their first names, Sam and Matt, said they were "really excited" as they waited in line.
"We're feeling as prepared as we could be. The application is about an inch thick," said Matt, adding that his wife had prepared most of it, including information about their labor practices, a site map and much more. "It was a lot of work."
"And a lot of hope," added Sam. "Being here, it's a mixture of weird and exciting."
The emotions of Rain on the Earth, a 71-year-old farmer from Garberville, were less diluted.
"It feels incredible," she said. "This is a real turning point for the state and county. We've been wanting to come out of the shadows for a long time."
Earth's great-nephew, Myles Moscato, was the first person to file an application, along with his aunt and father. The three generations were shepherded up to the counter by Wall as Luke Bruner, boardmember of California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, enthusiastically took pictures of the proceedings.
"History being made!" said Bruner.
Meanwhile, the county's already being sued over the newly enacted medical marijuana cultivation ordinance that paved the way for those business licenses.
The Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project (HuMMAP) filed a lawsuit Feb. 26 challenging the county ordinance and seeking an injunction halting its implementation. If granted, the county would have to stop issuing medical marijuana business permits. The lawsuit, filed by Berkeley attorney Rachel Doughty, says the ordinance does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.
The suit references the ordinance's accompanying mitigated negative declaration, an environmental report that essentially promises the ordinance will not have adverse environmental impacts in exchange for not having to complete a lengthy and costly impact study.
"The initial study upon which the [mitigated negative declaration] was based is replete with unsupported facts, insufficient bases and outright errors," the lawsuit reads. The suit claims the county failed to take into account habitat fragmentation, the impact of generator noise on spotted owls and greenhouse gas emissions associated with expanding grows. The suit also says that mitigations noted in the declaration don't appear in final language of the ordinance.
That mitigated negative declaration was the subject of lawsuit threats from environmental groups previously, when the planning commission recommended changes to the staff-drafted ordinance that the groups felt were too lenient. Concerned that a lawsuit would push them past a March 1 state deadline that would cede local medical marijuana regulation to the state, the Board of Supervisors reinstated much of the original draft's restrictions to match the staff-generated mitigated negative declaration. Since then, however, state lawmakers have lifted the deadline to put local ordinances in effect, so the HuMMAP lawsuit will not prevent the county from ever getting marijuana laws on the books even if it postpones enactment of the ordinance, or even invalidates it.