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Things Have Changed

Stepping off secrecy in Southern Humboldt, part 1 of 2



Erika Morlan made a hard decision. Fed up with the noise from the generators and fans, the odor of diesel exhaust, the rapidly disappearing meadow around her home, she did something that's just not done in Honeydew: She blew the whistle on her neighbor's grow.

Morlan, who goes by the nickname "Squeaky," has lived in the Mattole Valley since 2005, taking over the homestead near the river that her parents bought in the 1970s. While growing cannabis has been a decades-long industry in the region, previous growers were discreet, cultivating their product in the mountains, down gravel roads and behind locked gates. Scores of greenhouses have popped up on the ridges in the last decade but the valley floor, where settlers once grew wheat and apples, has remained largely untouched. That is, until the county's medical marijuana ordinance passed, condoning legal cultivation on land zoned prime agriculture. That's when Morlan, and others living on the banks of the Mattole River, saw the landscape rapidly change.

"I've gone from an open field to a 30,000 square feet [grow]," Morlan says about her neighbor's operation, acknowledging that she herself has a 1,900 square foot operation. "I'm not against weed, I'm against industrialization and against the destruction of the environment. That's why I moved to the country and it followed me here."

On Aug. 3, Morlan sent a letter to county Planning Director John Ford and Supervisor Rex Bohn to express her "sorrow, frustration and anger at the way this so-called Green Rush is destroying Humboldt's rural communities."

In the letter, she decries the spread of plastic hoop houses and industrial grows, the traffic, the dust and the noise from fans and smell of diesel exhaust. Morlan says one neighbor had threatened to wage "war" against her if she reported illegal activities. She received a response from Ford the next day but none from Bohn and, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, published a copy of the letter on popular Southern Humboldt newsblog Redheaded Blackbelt. Her words drew a total of 208 comments, ranging from the sympathetic ("Rural communities [are] being held hostage to the ravages of industrial users) to the dismissive ("Embrace the change" and "Suck it up").

Since going public, Morlan says she has been a "nervous wreck." She's received supportive emails and calls from community members, but continues to be concerned about her relationship with her neighbor, with whom she shares a water system.

In a phone call to the Journal, Ford confirmed he had received and responded to Morlan's letter, and the complaints about noise, smells and other issues had been referred to code enforcement. Bohn, in an email to the Journal, said it was inaccurate to say he hadn't been responsive. He had referred the complaint to county planning, just as he delegates the dozens of emails from constituents he receives each day, emails about roads and water and, yes, the cannabis ordinance, the current incarnation of which the Board of Supervisors is responsible for approving and continuing to augment. As for Morlan's accusation, alluded to in the Redheaded Blackbelt letter, that Bohn has a personal relationship that might sway his influence in the squabble, he denies this is a factor and Ford says he does not feel Bohn has a conflict of interest. All parties concerned have paperwork on file with the county. Following the publication of the letter, Bohn spoke with Morlan personally, as well as the neighbors.

"Supervisor Bohn needs to be given a ton of credit for being solution-oriented," says Ford, referring to Bohn's visit to the farms in question. "That may be outside the bureaucratic process but it can be effective. There's definitely a lack of people sitting down and talking with their neighbors to get things done; they throw it at the government instead."

Ford's statement, obliquely, speaks to the tension at the heart of this story. Many rural parts of Humboldt County, and most aspects of the cannabis industry, have been, until very recently, lawless and unregulated. In that vacuum, neighbors helped neighbors, neighbors defended neighbors and, to be honest, sometimes neighbors screwed over neighbors. Nobody snitched, for better or worse. Code enforcement can check permits, levy fines and pull plants, but it can't force neighbors to be nice to one another. As a once-secretive industry spills out of the woods and into plain sight and grows expand to keep profiting as the price per pound falls, there are going to be a lot of pissed off neighbors.

Morlan says her neighbors are "not interested in working things out with [her]. They're just interested in their bottom line."

Still, as challenging and cumbersome as it obviously is, a regulated industry is an industry with tools for citizen whistleblowers, and with incentives for growers to adhere to the law. Morlan's complaint is certainly not the first or the last (code enforcement reports are kept confidential), but her willingness to upset the applecart in Honeydew certainly represents a new era. What remains to be seen is whether or not the rest of the community will embrace the same kind of transparency.

Editor's note: This story was updated from the version that appeared in print to correct an editing error.

Next week: Erica Morlan's neighbor makes a hard decision.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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