Letters + Opinion » The Week in Weed

Full Speed Ahead?



The Humboldt County Planning Commission embarked on its journey to review the latest proposed medical marijuana ordinance recently with a marathon meeting that saw dozens of public comments.

The county is hustling to push through the ordinance, which dictates which land use zones will be allowed to host marijuana grows. Looming overhead is a March 1, 2016 deadline put into place by the package of statewide medical marijuana bills passed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. While many of the details of how the state will regulate the marijuana industry weren't developed as of the Oct. 5 meeting, the bills allow counties to develop permitting procedures as long as they are at least as stringent as the (mostly yet-to-be-determined) state standards. The catch, the county says, is that local regulations must be in place by March 1 or "the state will be the sole licensing authority." (Assemblyman Jim Wood opposed that deadline, and his staff says removing it is a "top priority" when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

"We can get a jump on the process," Deputy County Counsel Joel Ellinwood told the commissioners. "We can give cultivators in Humboldt County a head start on the state process and provide the benefits of this regulatory scheme earlier than would otherwise be the case."

The prospect of ceding local control is alarming to the county, which wants to dictate where and how large marijuana grows can be in an attempt to curb the fragmentation of large rural properties and the associated environmental harm that's blown up with the last 15 years' green rush. The state's rules allow for grows up to an acre in size, which most people (those who are speaking up, anyway) agree is too large for Humboldt County, where most grows take place in remote properties unsuitable for typical agricultural production.

So the county's scrambling. As the Journal went to press, the planning commission was beginning its second meeting reviewing the draft county ordinance, and another is planned for Nov. 12. The board of supervisors has directed the commission to make recommendations for an ordinance by early December so the supervisors have enough time to review, discuss and properly notice the ordinance for adoption.

The planning commission has to move quickly, though it's recently been fairly hands-on and slow-moving with simpler projects. And this one is daunting, everyone agrees, with the potential to dramatically impact Humboldt County's environment and economy. (As the meeting went into a five-minute break, the video recording caught one commissioner saying "Jesus, that was a lot of reading, I'll tell you," before the microphone turned off.) The ordinance has to pass environmental review. The supervisors have to rapidly whittle the language to their liking. Everything has to go perfectly, basically, in order for the county to get its ordinance on the books in time. After the planning commission's Nov. 5 meeting, it doesn't look particularly promising.

Commissioners are working off of a draft ordinance prepared by county counsel and the planning and building department. The draft had a rough start, irking supervisors Ryan Sundberg and Estelle Fennell upon its release, as it departed from the California Cannabis Voice Humboldt draft that was bandied about for a year and submitted to the county in September. Both supervisors said they were worried the current draft's requirements were so strict that growers wouldn't come into compliance, choosing instead to remain in the black market.

That concern was echoed by a number of public commenters at the planning commission meeting. As drafted, the ordinance requires growers operating with a cultivation area of 2,000 square feet to obtain a conditional use permit, a discretionary permit that would require a public hearing and review by the planning commission. These are expensive and time consuming, and, some argued, would deter compliance.

The draft allows grows of between 500 and 2,000 square feet with a "special permit," which requires review by county staff but not a public hearing. Grows of less than 500 square feet would be given zoning clearance certificates — ministerial permits that don't require a review process as long as the application fits the county's requirements.

The draft's tier system and its prohibition on new grows in timber production zones have proven to be its most controversial aspects. Cannabis advocates have asked the county to increase the minimum size requiring conditional use permits. Environmental groups have supported the current draft.

At the Nov. 5 meeting, the public was generally supportive of the ordinance, though many evinced concerns about the proposed regulations without suggesting what, specifically, should be amended.

Several rural residents complained about the noise, light and other nuisances from large outdoor grows. Debbie Provolt, the chair of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights advisory board, said existing grows shouldn't be given priority treatment for permits. "Don't reward those who've broken the law and punish those who haven't by making them jump through hoops," she said.

Representatives from CCVH and the Mattole Sustainable Farmers Guild suggested that zoning clearance certificates should be given to grows of up to 10,000 square feet in size. Natalynne Delapp of the Environmental Protection Information Center and Jen Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper said there should be more in the ordinance to discourage water trucking and indoor cultivation. They both called for a cap on the total number of permits issued for outdoor grows. Provolt, somewhat surprisingly, given the history of their respective organizations, agreed.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the speakers (and submitted public comments) came from people involved in or advocating for the medical marijuana industry or the environment.

At the outset of the meeting, Commissioner Lee Ulansey (who founded HumCPR), sniped at Senior Planner Steve Lazar, who wrote the draft ordinance. "Describe what's been going on the last couple of years moving toward this step," Ulansey ordered him, saying he's received lots of concern from the community that there hasn't been enough public involvement in the issue.

Lazar explained that the outdoor cultivation ordinance is the fourth phase of the county's attempt to regulate the industry, and that several community meetings were held in 2013. "There was always in the distance the Holy Grail — commercial cultivation," Lazar said. But the stakeholders and county couldn't reach a consensus, and the process stalled. Now, Lazar said, the state regulations have leant the issue urgency and clear guidance, and brought the medical marijuana industry to the table.

Ulansey admonished Lazar for planning a meeting with CCVH and environmental groups after the county draft was released. Lazar said the meeting was intended to be educational, and that he selected the groups because of their involvement over the last several years, but that the meeting never took place. Ulansey said more people — ranchers, timber owners, conservancy groups — should have been involved in the process. But if those groups have concerns about the draft land use ordinance, they aren't very vocal about them. Aside from one Redway farm owner, people outside of the marijuana/enviro world didn't weigh in on the ordinance on Nov. 5.

The commission discussed the ordinance briefly following public comment. Ulansey said he'd like to include something in it that would allow the county to identify neighborhoods where cultivation is appropriate.

Commissioner Kevin McKenny said he was concerned that the mitigated negative declaration the county prepared wasn't sufficient to pass state environmental laws, saying it didn't address things like septic systems associated with grows. Lazar said the intention of the ordinance was simply to identify zones where cultivation could take place, and by permitting grows, the county hoped to see a "cascading effect of compliance" with other codes that already regulate septic systems and other development.

Commissioner Ben Shepherd said he was concerned about a cap on the total number of permits, saying it could lead to another "green rush." But Commissioner Noah Levy said he liked the idea of a cap — both as way to ensure the county's environmental assessment of an ordinance was adequate and to encourage people to come quickly into compliance.

The commission continued its hearing, and has less than three weeks to forward recommendations and meet the board of supervisors' timeline. The Journal will continue to follow the process.

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