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Supervisors take a big step back from eased regulations on pot grow permitting

Back to the drawing board for commercial growing; EIR to be commissioned

By Jay Gamel

Sonoma County supervisors backed off a comprehensive change to ease permitting commercial cannabis grows in the face of a well-orchestrated campaign against over-the-counter permitting without much public notice or input. Instead, Permit Sonoma, the department that now oversees all pot grow permitting, will try again next year to get a handle on future growth of the fledgling industry, this time with a full Environmental Impact Review (EIR).

“It is apparent at this time that we need more community outreach and environmental review of those policy concerns above as well as minimizing adverse impacts on the community, while moving forward with review and potential approval of cultivation permits,” The Board of Supervisors unanimously supported “additional community outreach and the development of a full EIR for future permit approvals,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said after a contentious public meeting on May 18. She said there will be public workshops in the near future, with a workshop coming to the board for the scoping of the EIR.

Existing projects with complete applications will move through the entitlement process while the EIR is being drafted, Gorin said.

The controversial new ordinance would have drastically changed how and where commercial cannabis grows would be allowed, expanding from one acre out of 10, to 10 percent of the lot size (with 10-acre minimum lots). Permitting would have been moved from Permit Sonoma to the County Agricultural Commissioner’s office and could be issued without a public hearing. The new rules did not require an EIR, according to Permit Sonoma, but could be justified on a determination by supervisors that the rules were necessary.

Staff indicated that a new EIR looking at county regulations and the entire commercial cannabis industry in the county could take up to 18 months and cost over $1 million, though state grant money may be available to underwrite it.

Gorin said cannabis cultivation has been discussed at the policy level for the past eight years. “It has always been important to move forward with permitted cultivation and enforcement actions on unpermitted growing operations. Often those grows were in public parks and on private land owned by others, causing environmental destruction, and using illegal water diversions and applications of hazardous materials,” she said.

“Policy decisions on appropriate locations for cultivation, the scale of the operations, setback requirements, security concerns, minimizing water use for cultivation and applying only organic or benign chemicals for growing are still very important decisions for the board,” she concluded.