Supes reject cannabis moratorium

By Brandon McCapes, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, October 15, 2021

The county’s comprehensive update of its cannabis cultivation ordinance was back before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Sept. 28 — and along with it came the usual controversy between cannabis farmers and anti-cannabis neighborhood groups.

After hours of presentations, discussion and public comments, the supervisors approved county staff’s recommendations that seven broad topics be explored in the context of the future ordinance and the environmental impact review (EIR), per staff recommendation.

Significantly, a moratorium on cannabis cultivation permits was not included in the list of recommendations nor supported by the board. A moratorium of all new cannabis cultivation permits until the adoption of the new cannabis ordinance is an option favored by neighborhood and environmental groups, and one the board has discussed. Earlier last month, the board passed a 45-day moratorium on new multi-tenant cannabis permits, but not on cannabis permits altogether.

On June 8, the supervisors directed county staff to complete a comprehensive update of the county’s cannabis ordinance, based on community input and an EIR. Though public outreach will continue throughout the three-year process, slated to end in 2024, this summer’s public outreach efforts were a first step toward an ordinance update, according to the board’s meeting agenda report.

Crystal Acker, project planner, presented to the board the findings of several public outreach efforts carried out over the summer, including a survey, eight virtual visioning sessions and twelve small group outreach sessions.

Acker said the initial outreach efforts were meant “to cast a wide net for what could be included in the new ordinance, and to study all or most of that so the decisions made later in the process will be data driven.”

The topics Acker presented to the board that staff will now study further include inclusion and exclusion zones, allowance of cannabis grows in Agricultural Residential (AR) and Rural Residential (RR) zones, amending the general plan to designate cannabis as a traditional agricultural use pending potential federal legalization, a ministerial program, the program EIR and transitional pathways for existing permits upon completion of an ordinance update.

Acker said that the “overarching goal is to streamline the permitting process,” which could be done by a ministerial process once parameters are adequately defined.

As could be expected on the controversial topic, county staff received a wide range of views on whether and how cannabis grows should be permitted, and where.

“The virtual visioning sessions and the countywide survey both generated a large number of comments expressing dissatisfaction with the process itself, and proclaiming bias either for or against the cannabis industry,” Acker said.

Typical of when cannabis items come before the board of supervisors, the public comments section featured dozens of proponents and opponents of cannabis cultivation, carrying on for two hours.

Public outreach and inclusion of public input will continue throughout the three-year process, Acker said.

Fourth District Supervisor James Gore called attention to the fact that despite years of public outreach, battle lines over cannabis remain drawn through the broader community seemingly just as staunchly as ever.

“That is not a new form of public comment that we’ve received. Over the last seven years, I along with my colleagues have sat here surrounded by as many as 500 people … sometimes folks with green shirts and red shirts (at) sometimes really controversial hearings. There will not be, in my mind, full consensus on this item,” Gore said.

“That’s why it will be dependent upon us to study what we need to study and make some real strong decisions. I say this with all honor and respect to all the outreach that’s being done, but, quite honestly, I don’t see a lot of results from outreach that have changed from seven years ago,” he continued.

According to Gore, the positions of rural communities concerned about cannabis grows in their neighborhood and agriculturists trying to produce cannabis crops represent understandable positions.

Gore recognized the need to manage impacts of agriculture in areas also zoned for residences, however, compared real or hypothetical cannabis impacts to those of traditional agriculture; the “Sonoma Aroma” in south county, for instance, or late night and early morning noise caused by harvest activity in north county.

Gore said he considered himself to be both pro-community and pro-cannabis. He said that claims by neighbors that neighborhood compatibility issues had not been addressed were “flat-out wrong,” citing measures to remove cannabis grows from agricultural residential zones and to cap grows at ten acres.

“Those were two primary things that led to neighborhood compatibility right off the bat. Those were big efforts that deleted thousands of parcels,” Gore said.

Gore also reiterated his support and empathy for cannabis farmers and applicants who have struggled through the changing permitting process, and said he was not in favor of the board’s current efforts to establish a ministerial process that would make it easier for businesses in the long run. He was not in favor of a moratorium, “no way, no how.”

“We have forced people to work through an imperfect process, and have spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to work through that process, and they have a right to due process,” Gore said.

He recommended staff look at all items brought before the board, and that they add tax reform to the list of issues to explore.

Finally, Gore criticized anti-cannabis neighborhood groups for what he called a “disingenuous” stated support for inclusion zones. Gore said that such groups — like many in favor of affordable housing — support inclusion zones only in theory, as neighbors from any proposed inclusion zone would not actually support it near their own homes.

“We’ve had folks say this shouldn’t be in farming zones — that’s ridiculous. This is an ag product,” he said.

Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Lynda Hopkins said she hoped the conversation would move away from perception of impacts, and refocus on impacts as determined by data and facts.

“I hope we can move past the hostility, and the personal, political and emotional nature of this conversation and really get down into a data-driven conversation. How can we separate the reality from the fear of something that may or may not come into fruition?” Hopkins said.

Although efforts to classify cannabis activity as a traditional agriculture use via general plan amendment recently failed, Hopkins emphasized that, despite the controversy around cannabis’s use as an intoxicating substance, its cultivation is a form of agriculture.

“I think it’s crazy to say something isn’t agriculture when it’s a plant growing in the ground. I look forward to having that conversation about what it means to define it in one way or another, and again trying to get back to reality and facts — and in this case, biology,” she said.

Hopkins said she believed that the county needed to get stalled project applications before the planning commission for binary votes, a course of action she said would provide clarity to both applicants and anti-cannabis neighborhood groups. Like Gore, she said she would not support a moratorium.

Hopkins reiterated that the supervisors were not making a final decision on any one topic that day, but only decided where to direct staff resources while exploring the new ordinance.

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