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The county of Humboldt is beginning the process of imposing $900,000 liens on a handful of properties whose owners have not responded to abatement and violation notices connected with cannabis cultivation.

Planning Director John Ford said the county's controversial code enforcement approach — which threatens fines of up to $10,000 a day on properties found out of compliance with the county's cannabis land use ordinance — is proving effective. Ford said the county has thus far used code enforcement to target unpermitted cannabis grows that haven't made any efforts to come into compliance.

"We do continue to identify illegal cultivation sites that aren't within the county permit system, that aren't within the state licensing system," he said. "They are basically producing cannabis that can only be sold in the illicit market."

Ford estimated that the county has sent out more than 600 notices of abatement and violation. Close to 200 of those, Ford said, have been addressed without a fine, with the owner either quickly agreeing to remove the grow entirely or entering into a compliance agreement with the county. Most of the rest, Ford said, have been resolved with a combination of a compliance agreement and a negotiated fine — generally in the neighborhood of $20,000 to $30,000.

From the county's perspective, Ford said, the fines are a consequence of people operating outside the law but the most important thing is addressing the underlying violation, whether it be a simple unpermitted grow or more entrenched grading and timber harvest violations. Property owners who have engaged the county in conversation early in the process have generally fared well, he said.

"The main focus is on resolving the violation," he said.

But that's proven a tremendous challenge with about 10 percent of the property owners, Ford said, who have simply not responded to the county's violation notices. In those cases, Ford said, fines accrue until they reach the maximum of $900,000, an amount that's roughly triple the county's median home value, according to the Humboldt County Economic Index.

"The next step for those is to unfortunately impose a lien against the property," Ford said, adding that the county is currently preparing to take that step in fewer than 10 cases.

Some in the cannabis industry have decried the code enforcement approach, saying the fines are excessive and charging that the county's strategy doesn't seem to target the most egregious violators. Local Attorney Eugene Denson told the Times-Standard in September that the fines constitute "cruel and unusual" punishment and urged growers on the receiving end of the notices to lawyer up and challenge them.

There's a process for that, Ford said. Property owners can appeal a notice of violation or abatement, which then triggers a hearing before an administrative law judge, who hears the case and decides whether the alleged violation exists. (The county had been contracting with McGeorge School of Law to provide judges via video conferencing for the hearings but is now evaluating proposals from three different organizations to take over the contract.)

In each and every case that's been appealed, Ford said the judge has sided with the county.

"We wouldn't take something questionable to the administrative law judge," Ford said. "It's either a violation or it's not. It's either clear or it's not."

Though Ford said he feels the code enforcement system is working, there's clearly plenty of work to do. While law enforcement has estimated there are more than 12,000 large cannabis cultivation sites in Humboldt County, fewer than 2,000 are working toward compliance, meaning some 85 percent are in violation of county codes.

"I think the primary focus right now is to continue to reduce the number of illicit grow sites in Humboldt County," Ford said, adding that doing such will help both the environment and permitted growers.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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