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News: 08/15/2018

Supes continue to tweak cannabis ordinance

Board does not support exclusion zones

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors continues to wrestle with developing rules related to legalized cannabis, trying to come up with a regulatory framework that is fair to cannabis cultivators while addressing growing neighborhood compatibility concerns.

The latest discussion, at a five-hour public meeting on Aug. 7, concerned amendments to the county cannabis ordinance supervisors passed in December of 2016, right after California voted to legalize recreational use.

Neighbors of cannabis grows have become increasingly vocal, objecting to odor problems, and expressing concerns over potential safety and environmental issues.

The process for coming up with a permitting process for cannabis growers has been complex, and is scheduled to go on for at least another year, making at least one supervisor uneasy about going forward at this particular time.

Supervisor David Rabbitt proposed a temporary moratorium on any new cannabis permit applications, saying the rule-making process has been piecemeal and has not given the county, or the public, the regulatory certainty necessary. He said he was also concerned about possible litigation challenging board decisions.

“We jumped into this process too quickly, in my opinion,” said Rabbitt. “We tried to go so quickly to get ahead of all this stuff that we are ahead of our own selves.”

The four other supervisors declined to support any moratorium.

The county’s Planning Commission had made a number of recommendations to the board for changes to the ordinance, involving parcel size requirements for grows, setbacks from public parks, length of the life of permits, and consideration of cannabis exclusion zones.

Most contentious was the exclusion zone concept, a proposal supported by a number of neighborhood groups that would create a process to ask the county to prohibit cannabis uses in certain areas, if certain criteria were met, such as bad roads, fire safety problems, and areas that have an overconcentration of cannabis activities.

By a 3-2 vote, the board decided not to support exclusion zones, citing in part the subjective nature of the criteria, the creation of another bureaucratic process, and concern over the workload on county staff. Supervisors James Gore and Rabbitt were in favor of exclusion zones.

Supervisors Shirley Zane, Lynda Hopkins and Susan Gorin were not, much to the chagrin of Bennett Valley resident and community advocate Craig Harrison.

“The supervisors refused to protect rural neighborhoods,” said Harrison. “Supervisor Gorin voted against her own Ad Hoc Committee’s proposal to allow neighborhoods to apply for exclusion zones to ban commercial marijuana. Polling indicates 70 percent approval of exclusion zones, so she seems to care more about the one percent who grow marijuana rather than voters.”

“I voted to not consider this as a tool at this time because our regulations are still evolving,” said Gorin in response. “It is premature to consider this as it is very staff-intensive at a time when we are focused on recovery and rebuilding, winery and events policies, and a general plan update process. I have asked for more information on road width and other criteria to establish neighborhood compatibility and safety for cultivation applications.”

Supervisors did support a proposal requiring that any new permit applications for cannabis cultivation on agriculturally zoned properties must be on parcels at least 10 acres in size.

The board also voted to extend the life of cannabis permits before a re-application is necessary, from one year to two years for zoning permits, and from one year to five years for cultivation use permits. The supervisors reasoned the current one-year timeline wasn’t fair to growers who have had to invest large sums of money to meet the permit requirements.

The ordinance changes approved by the board come back to them for a final vote at their meeting on Sept. 11.

More possible ordinance changes are coming down the pike, as planning staff will be coming to the board beginning in September with a more thorough review of neighborhood compatibility and other ordinance implementation efforts.

“We can coexist peacefully,” said Gorin, referring to cannabis growers and concerned neighbors, encouraging all parties to open more dialogue. “There are legitimate concerns, but I think we can move ahead… There are reasonable places to cultivate and there are obvious places where we should not be cultivating.”

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