After marathon hearings, next county cannabis ordinance update vote is April 15

By Rollie Atkinson, Sonoma West Staff, Sonoma West Times & News, March 29, 2021

cannabis

Following almost seven hours of staff presentations and public comments on March 18 and March 25, Sonoma County’s Planning Commission on April 15 will meet to possibly vote on a slightly revised staff proposal to move forward a series of significant updates to the county’s Commercial Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance.

The marathon hearing sessions pitted members of the local cannabis industry seeking a more streamlined permit process against potential rural neighbors seeking larger property line setbacks and protections from odors, water use impacts and crime. Commissioners and staff collected almost 500 comments and questions before summarizing their views and minor changes to the 32-page ordinance that must ultimately be approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, possibly later this year.

The draft ordinance will significantly streamline the cultivation permit process, moving permitting authority to the agricultural commissioner’s office away from the county’s planning department, Permit Sonoma. It would remove the requirement for individual pot projects to be subject to public zoning and permissible use permit hearings. Growers would have to adhere to minimum setbacks from property lines (100 feet) and neighboring structures (300 feet.) Regulations on water use, energy sources, habitat protection, odor controls and minimum lot sizes are all changed from the previous 2018 ordinance.

The aim of the county is to treat cannabis cultivation like all other crop production and agricultural activities. A minimum 10-acre parcel size is required and only one acre of pot can be grown on parcels under 20 acres. Larger parcels could be permitted to plant 10% of the land in cannabis, subject to property line, waterway, habitat and public view setbacks. Only land zoned agricultural or rural resource would be allowed.

The draft ordinance has drawn the ire of many would-be rural neighbors and property owners who fear negative impacts on their neighborhood character, safety and property values. Industry proponents, while supporting the move of oversight to the agriculture commissioner’s office, remain leery of some of the land and resource use restrictions that do not apply to other crops such as winegrapes.

The three top points of contention during the hours of testimony were how to control the skunk-like odor of cannabis, unknown impacts to rural water sources from the outdoor and hoop house grows and what adequate property line and neighboring structure setbacks should be.

“There’s lots of uncertainty on the impact of the odors,” said Greg Carr, commission chair, during the March 25 hearing. Some odors can go undetected from close range, while other grow locations can be smelled from much greater distances, he said. The proposed ordinance is not site-specific, instead applying general setback and other requirements across all properly zoned parcels.

Meanwhile, a law firm representing some of the rural neighbors has sent the county an exhaustive letter and set of exhibits claiming the “county cannot legally proceed without doing a full environmental impact report” and cannot “legally adopt a ministerial process because discretionary decision-making is required.” The law firm, Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger LLP, of San Francisco, is representing the Friends of the Mark West Watershed and Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods.

“The proposal removes a number of health, safety and nuisance protections for neighbors, and fails to increase the proposed inadequate setback requirements,” the law firm also contends.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors created an ad hoc committee in 2017 with members James Gore and Lynda Hopkins. The committee’s goals included avoiding the need for an expensive and drawn-out environmental impact report while seeking “to incentivize the industry to come into compliance while ensuring the interests of all residents and the environment are protected.”

At the March 25 session, Commissioner Pam Davis asked Andrew Smith, the county’s ag commissioner, what types of commercial cultivation operations the new ordinance might favor.

“I think this proposed policy will attract both (smaller) craft growers and some (larger) industrial operations,” Smith said. “Our policy affords a pathway for both.”

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com