As marijuana planting season begins, medical growers and neighbors bothered by their gardens are still in the lurch as the county tries to come up with suitable guidelines for backyard gardens prevalent in the eastern and southern parts of the county.
The board of supervisors' struggle to come up with an ordinance limiting small, medical marijuana grows is indicative of several recurring issues: the public's say in crafting a law, the distinction between the roles of the board and the planning commission, the vastly different takes on reasonable grows in different parts of the county, and confusion about what the ordinance is ultimately attempting to accomplish.
Those issues, coupled with the looming troubles of this year's growing season, led to some frustration at the supervisors' April 22 meeting. That Tuesday, the board faced a request from the planning commission — represented by county planning and building Director Kevin Hamblin — for more money and more time to meet with the public regarding the proposed ordinance. The board, in a unanimous vote, denied the request and at least one supervisor emphatically asked that the planning commissioners make a recommendation to the board at their May 1 meeting.
"They've already put this off two meetings and I don't know if you remember, but I've been harping on this thing," an exasperated-sounding 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said at the meeting. "[Growers] are going to start planting. ... The people are buying their soil. They don't know what the rules are right now. I don't think that's fair for the people that are growing legit medical marijuana and I don't think it's fair for the neighbors."
Some county supervisors have been seeking an ordinance to reduce marijuana nuisances for years. In March 2013, one draft bill — the result of more than a year of meetings and research — was presented to the board. After the board gathered public comment over the course of three meetings and online, 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace and Sundberg formed the Medical Marijuana Subcommittee.
That group brought back the draft ordinance to the board in October 2013, recommending several areas for consideration: Prohibiting outdoor cultivation on property under a half-acre; limiting the number of mature plants to five per parcel; a maximum of 50 feet of canopy cover from mature plants; and creating 20-foot offsets from neighboring parcels and 600-foot offsets from schools, parks, churches and Native American cultural sites.
Supervisors gave the go-ahead to craft an ordinance and the planning commission began to review the draft document in December.
The commission held public hearings at its last two meetings, but ended its discussion of the ordinance on April 3, asking the supervisors to allocate nearly $5,000 to cover the costs of holding additional public meetings in the eastern and southern parts of the county. The commission hadn't had a chance to deliberate on the ordinance, Hamblin told the supervisors, or gather what it felt was enough public input.
Sundberg seemed flustered by the commission's request, though he said he understood, with a relatively new makeup of the commission (five of the seven commissioners have been appointed since the beginning of 2013), why its members felt they needed more input. Both a voicemail and email left for Sundberg seeking comment for this story went unreturned by deadline.
Lovelace, on the phone on his way back from the Bay Area late last week, said there wasn't much attendance at previous board discussions of the ordinance — though a March 6 planning commission meeting saw a large turnout from concerned citizens. "I understand the concerns of folks from the outlying areas about policies that affect them," Lovelace said. "To some degree, you can put out the invitation and let them know a meeting is happening, but if you don't provide the input when you ask for it, there's not really much we can do at this point."
He added that there are more opportunities for input: The May 1 planning commission meeting and the supervisors' next discussion of the ordinance, tentatively scheduled for May 6 if the commission agrees on its recommendations.
Sundberg expressed frustration during the April 22 meeting at the slow movement of the ordinance, saying that he'd hoped it would be in effect by this year's planting season. Lovelace shared that concern but said the timing shouldn't prevent the board from moving forward.
"The whole idea was to get something in place for this year for planting, to protect people for this year," he said. "Now, it's pretty late."
What does that mean for this year's growing season? How will people know how much to plant, if an ordinance is likely to go into effect partway through the season? And if people who don't come into compliance by the end of this season don't get in trouble for their violations, what will keep them from planting outside the law next year?
Lovelace said the law should go into effect soon — mid-season or not. "I think it's fine to go forward immediately," he said. "I think if you're growing, you pay attention to things like this. Those people should be able to anticipate this is coming. Beyond that it takes a while for plants to grow and mature and that's when the problems arrive. A lot of people grow more plants and thin them down to the best ones. By the time odor becomes a problem, this ordinance should be well in place before then."
Sundberg, in his April 22 motion to deny the request, initially sounded like he was suggesting that the commission look at different guidelines for different parts of the county, but was reminded that the board was simply discussing the budget request, not the content of the proposed ordinance.
"I don't think a one-size-fits-all policy's going to work in this situation," he said. "[Public opinions in the 5th and 2nd districts] are vastly, drastically different. And I actually didn't know that at first. I thought we were going to do something countywide, but since there's been more input it's definitely different."
Sundberg characterized 5th District residents as deeply concerned about neighborhood grows and 2nd District residents in the south of the county as far more liberal with their backyard crops. "The 5th District has spoken," he said. "I've heard a few comments about people who want to relax the numbers — the majority has been, 'We need some relief in these towns that are being overrun.' I also know that Garberville, Redway — Supervisor [Estelle] Fennell's district — it's almost the opposite. They don't mind, they don't want the intrusion. They showed up in huge numbers and made their voice very, very clear."
Fennell essentially agreed with that assessment. The draft ordinance's prohibition of outdoor grows on parcels smaller than a half-acre has been of particular concern, she wrote in an email.
"People in the more rural areas are very often committed to a more natural method of growing," she wrote. "They see growing indoors as detrimental to the environment and our limited housing stock. It would also cost a lot more to grow indoors than planting a few seeds in the garden. I've also heard the concern that forced indoor growing would create a big problem for tenants and landlords. Frivolous complaints are another concern. And I've heard concerns about limiting the canopy to 50 square feet."
Lovelace wasn't sure if different regulations in different parts of the county would work, though. "It does start to look like what you call spot zoning, where you're having it apply to only one specific circumstance," he said. "That's not fair. I have concerns about how and whether that should be applied."
Lovelace called for more input from growers and their neighbors, saying that the specific size and setback limits were things that should come directly from affected residents.
Ultimately, he pointed out, the ordinance is being designed as a land-use regulation. It will be complaint-driven and violations will be dealt with by fines and civil action, not law enforcement.
That's a distinction that Hamblin said is lost in much of the discussion. It's not intended to go after commercial grows, or make any determination about how much medical marijuana people should or can use. It's simply designed to regulate how much a medical grow's smelly output should be allowed to impact its neighbors.
And because it's a good neighbor ordinance, areas where growers and their neighbors are more liberal are less likely to be affected.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn also weighed in at the April 22 meeting, saying it's not a battle between the interests of Willow Creek and the interests of Garberville.
Instead, he said, the ordinance is about being a good neighbor: "If you're a lousy neighbor and grow on the fence line and everything else, it's your own damn fault."
Editor's Note: Just prior to deadline, The Journal learned a local attorney is threatening the county with litigation, alleging it violated state open meeting laws in crafating this proposed ordinance. Visit www.northcoastjournal.com to keep up with the story as it develops.