County rushing medical cannabis rules for cash
Board aims to start cultivating taxes and fees as soon as possible
By the time you read this, Sonoma County’s supervisors will likely have come to some decision about whether to allow commercial medical marijuana to be grown in areas zoned Rural Residential (RR) and Agricultural and Residential (AR). They continued a Dec. 6 hearing to Dec. 13 to hash out a strident controversy over commercial cultivation in residential areas.
The proposed ordinance would allow commercial growth in RR and AR lots of two acres or more, a decision that will impact thousands of homeowners in the county, and hundreds in the north end of the Valley of the Moon. Setbacks from schools and other sensitive areas would be 600 feet.
The issues were fairly apparent at the Dec. 6 hearing, with people providing at times tearful accounts of the kids not being able to play in the street, and others expressing fears both fanciful and imminently real of the criminal aspect of the all-cash marijuana business.
Home invasions, weapons, surly neighbors, and shootings are all part of the litany of potential evils when pot is growing next door.
Many neighborhood growers, on the other hand, say they are good, responsible neighbors. What they can’t seem to eliminate in outdoor grows, however, is the skunky odor of the plants, which many people do not care to live with.
“I respect the growers that are responsible,” Richard Gransaki said. “But I simply cannot find a reasonable rationale or justification for having commercial cultivation in a Rural Residential zone, particularly in light of the fact you have several other zones that don’t have neighborhoods in them or few residents.”
But potential revenue is driving this wagon to market, and the fact that many illegal growers already exist in residential zones will play a role in the final decision.
Third District Supervisor David Rabbitt expressed some concern over how effective any tax might be. Definitely a fan of a high tax rate, Rabbitt said that, “There are a lot of risk takers in the current field now. How many will come into compliance? A lot of people may be permitted and still have a foot in the black market.”
The County Administrator’s study estimated that perhaps only 10 percent of large growers will ask for permits, and up to 25 percent of small growers will comply. The county spokesperson said the survey was not scientific, but suggested compliance rates would be higher than those conservative predictions.
Before continuing the five-hour afternoon session, the supervisors unanimously agreed to the proposed modified regulations for manufacturing medical cannabis products, setting a maximum tax on cannabis plants and products, and agreed to hold a Special Election in March for voters in the unincorporated area of the county to approve the tax measure.
Basically, pot would be taxed at a rate of up to $10 per square foot of outdoor cultivation, $38 per square foot of indoor cultivation, and $22 per square foot of mixed-light cultivation, or at a rate of up to 10 percent of gross receipts per fiscal year. These are the maximum tax rates the county could charge, though it is free to impose lesser rates by fiat of the Board of Supervisors. A higher rate would require a county-wide vote.
Passing the tax would take a simple majority vote, but there was a lot of concern that the whole set of regulations is being rushed through and that not enough time or consideration has gone into fashioning reasonable regulations.
If the tax doesn’t pass, none of the other regulations are likely to be feasible, since the cost of implementing them would have to be underwritten by the new taxes. There’s little to no chance they would be funded by general taxes, said Board Chairman Efren Carrillo, speaking for the entire board. Carrillo leaves the board in January, to be replaced by Linda Hopkins in the Fifth District.
At the hearing, many growers argued that the tax rate was too high and would keep illegal growers in the shadows.
On the land use issue, growers argued that commercial grows should be allowed in residential zones since so many of them are already living and growing in those zones.
“It’s going to take a major increase in staff to handle all the new issues and complaints,” West County resident Linda Ortiz said at the hearing. “The staff member finally came out and he took pictures, but he said it would take a year or more to resolve this because they’re short of staff. Isn’t this the same department enforcing these ordinances?”
Sonoma County’s ability to enforce its ordinances has enjoyed meager success, with supervisors being the first to admit that there are not enough people on the payroll to enforce even major infractions of the county’s existing rules.
While First District Supervisor Susan Gorin expressed strong reservations about putting the tax measure on the March ballot, as well as Fourth District Supervisor James Gore to a lesser extent, they both voted to move it forward.
“I won’t oppose March,” Gorin said. “But, if it doesn’t work in March, there’s not time for June, and it would potentially have to wait until November. That makes me nervous.” She was also concerned that there wasn’t enough time to mount a successful campaign for the tax, but was assured by a county administrator that 27 other California counties had easily passed similar measures.
State rules place time constraints on placing various ballot measures. If these are not completed by Dec. 20, they may not make the ballot.
The hearing was continued to 2:10 p.m., Dec. 13.
And, of course, if Alabama’s Senator Jeff Sessions, the president-elect’s nominee for Attorney General, has anything to say about it, all state cannabis laws could be shot down very soon. Time will tell.