After months and months of trying to use the proverbial carrot to bring Humboldt County cannabis farmers into compliance, officials are now turning to the stick.
According to Planning Director John Ford, the county's code enforcement unit — which was moved under planning's umbrella earlier this year — has sent out abatement notices to dozens of property owners over the past week in the Willow Creek area and Southern Humboldt. The notices give the property owners 10 days to remedy code violations on their properties or enter into a "compliance agreement." After that 10-day period, the county will begin fining the owners $10,000 a day per violation, meaning that properties with multiple violations — say for cannabis cultivation, unpermitted grading and work in streamside management areas without authorization — could face tens of thousands of dollars in daily fines. That's enough to get a grower's attention, especially in this day and age of plummeting per-pound prices.
Official estimates indicate there are more than 10,000 large-scale cannabis farms in Humboldt County, with only about 2,300 of them having entered the permitting and regulation process to become legitimate. The county has long talked about how to incentivize compliance, working to make sure Humboldt's process gives local growers a leg up under the state's new recreational regulations that are slated to go into effect in January. But with an understaffed sheriff's office and little, if any, help from the state, it's been unclear exactly how the county intended to approach the estimated 7,700 farms still operating in the black market.
Ford said planning staff is identifying violations by looking at aerial imagery and comparing it to the county's database of cannabis permits and permit applications. When properties "clearly show evidence" of unpermitted cultivation — or other code violations — they'll send abatement notices to the owners. Over the last week or so, 49 such notices have been sent out, sending ripples through the local industry.
It's worth noting that the notices appear to have been sent out after the county board of supervisors received a letter co-signed by five local environmental groups urging the county to halt the issuing of any new cannabis cultivation permits until the county can crack down on those currently operating out of compliance.
The letter — signed by the Environmental Protection Information Center, Humboldt Baykeeper, SAFE Alternatives for our Forest Environment, Redwood Region Audubon Society and the Northcoast Environmental Center — points out that only an estimated 8 to 13 percent of existing cannabis farms applied for county permits, and that includes the hundreds that were withdrawn or remain incomplete.
"In short, until we deal with the existing environmental damage and the vast number of operations not in compliance, we should not increase the potential environmental risk by permitting any new grows," the letter states.
The letter was sent in response to a proposal to open up the county's land use ordinance to commercial grows for recreational markets (currently it's limited to the medical side of things). But its points also seem pertinent to the current conversation over what to do with the backlog of medical applicants and noncompliant growers.
Whether or not the letter prompted the code enforcement actions, Ford and county planning appear to be veering another direction. In an email to the Journal, Ford said his staff is moving to create an "interim permit process." It would allow existing growers who managed to get complete applications on file with the county by July 14 to obtain temporary permits intended to allow them to get state licenses when that process opens up next year.
"They would still need to complete the permit process with the county as this is only an interim permit," Ford wrote, adding that it would not apply to growers who expanded their footprints or were out of compliance with any other state or county regulation.
Many in the industry see this as county planning making good on its promise to permit those doing what they need to do to come into compliance despite a huge application backlog in the department. Enviro groups apparently see it differently.
The issue is slated to come to a head in Supervisors Chambers on Nov. 14, when Ford's "interim permit process" pitch will come before the board.
Editor's note: This column has been updated from a previous version to clarify the environmental groups' letter was sent in response to a county proposal to expand its current medical marijuana land use ordinance to recreational operations.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.