County set to hit the cannabis ordinance reset button next week

By Rollie Atkinson, SoCoNews Staff, SoCoNews, August 6, 2021

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Four days of virtual vision sessions set beginning of three-year EIR and update process

After pulling the plug earlier this year on comprehensive updates to commercial cannabis cultivation ordinances and rules, Sonoma County planners and consultants are launching their self-proclaimed reboot next week with a series of virtual visioning sessions to gather public input on an eventual environmental impact report and proposed ordinance.

The reboot is the first step of a projected timeline of public workshops, draft ordinance work, draft environmental impact report (EIR) completion, planning commission hearings and culminating in the summer of 2024 with Sonoma County Board of Supervisors public hearings.

No one said writing rules to regulate a potential billion-dollar crop of commercial cannabis would be easy. The previous sessions of draft proposals, virtual town hall workshops, planning commission votes and the supervisor’s ultimate call for a “reboot” involved well over a thousand citizen comments and the specter of potential lawsuits.

The public virtual sessions will be held each day from Aug. 9 to Aug. 12, with duplicate sessions held each morning (11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and repeated in the evening (5:30 to 7:30 p.m.) Public comments will be taken by written responses only in a “chat board” format on a Zoom platform.

The session on Aug. 9 will focus on land use, seeking comments on appropriate and inappropriate locations for pot grows. Odor and noise issues also will be addressed and county staff is seeking suggestions on best practices for accountability of growers and regulators.

The Aug. 10 session will deal with safety issues related to commercial cannabis operations in the county’s rural and agricultural-zoned lands. Besides neighborhood protections and cultivation site security, questions about wildfire safety will be included.

Water considerations will be the focus of the Wednesday, Aug. 11 morning and evening sessions and visual considerations will be the focus of the Thursday, Aug. 12 sessions.

“Questions posed to the public will be general, bigger-picture questions intended to identify what values are most important to Sonoma County residents to inform development of a new cannabis program,” the county’s announcement about the sessions outlined this week on their website.

County staff and consultants plan to hold “small group outreach” sessions during the weeks of Aug. 16 and 23 and will conduct a countywide digital survey the week of Aug. 30. All the collected comments will be packaged and presented to the board of supervisors the week of Sept. 13.

Following five months of planning staff work and citizen outreach, the board of supervisors voted 5-0 to reject the planning commission’s recommendations to streamline the commercial cultivation application and siting process and set a minimum site size at 10 acres, limiting cultivation to just 10% of the property. The proposed ordinance also included numerous standards and limitations on growers for water and energy use, setbacks from neighboring property lines and structures and mitigations for noise, odor and property security measures.

Many local cannabis growers protested the long list of requirements while would-be rural neighbors were equally loud about potential impacts to their rural neighborhood safety, property values and noise and odor nuisances.

The planning commission, a split 3-2 vote, rejected a staff proposal to define cannabis cultivation as an agricultural activity or crop which would have lessened some of the land use and site requirements.

In making the 5-0 vote of rejection, county supervisors expressed regrets over the update process.

“I think we owe an apology,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “We haven’t been doing any favors for the (cannabis) industry, neighbors or the county. It’s time to hit a reset. I think we failed.”

Board chair Lynda Hopkins agreed. “Yes, I think we owe an apology and admit we have learned a lesson.”

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