The poster child for a dreadful cannabis project
By Craig S. Harrison and Deborah A. Eppstein
In late 2018, Permit Sonoma (PRMD) briefed the county Board of Zoning Adjustment commissioners about the hundred cannabis cultivation permits being processed. A male voice on the tape shouted out “bring ‘em to us and we’ll approve them all.” Deputy Director Jennifer Barrett thanked him.
This rubberstamp attitude was evident on Nov. 14. Five commissioners unanimously approved a conditional use permit on Grange Road in Bennett Valley. Commissioner Shahhosseini fiddled with his smartphone and ignored twenty minutes of community opposition. Other commissioners seemed distracted.
The project is egregious. The property owner has six felony convictions for lying and filing false documents to bilk the state while directing an electronics recycling company that violated environmental laws. The grower, Brian McInerney, lacks a required state license after three years of operations. Under the penalty relief program (PRP), the county allows cultivation in violation of CalCannabis rules. Dispensaries purchase only from state licensees, so any sales are black market.
PRMD negligently allowed this unpermitted grow. Satellite images reveal that no cannabis was planted by July 9, 2017, past the July 5 county deadline. McInerney claims he began June 30, but the corporate operator and landowner LLCs formed on July 17 and 18, respectively. The property wasn’t conveyed to the property owners’ LLC until Aug. 30, long after the grow purportedly began.
When asked to prove that he qualified for the PRP by beginning before July 5, McInerney produced a lease dated and signed Aug. 1, 2017. He was in the PRP under false pretenses. Just before the hearing, McInerney ginned up a revised lease that is identical to the original (hand-written parts and signatures are identical), except that start and signature dates are backdated to Jan. 1. The fraudulent lease shows lack of respect for the law and judgment of county officials. Sadly, that assessment is warranted. Commissioner Ariel Kelley was troubled by the phony lease, but approved the permit anyway. Both the PRP application and the permit conditions state that providing false information during the permitting process will result in rejecting the application. So why approve this permit?
In a lawful society, someone caught forging documents for financial gain would be punished with incarceration, a steep fine, and disgorge all profits made from the fraud. Here, the applicant instead retains his ill-gotten gains from three years of cultivation and is rewarded with a five-year permit to continue.
PRMD bungled its fact-gathering role. Besides accepting the bogus lease (failing to fact-check its own records), PRMD claimed tax receipts and invoices showed the operation existed on time. But a Public Records Act request yielded no such documents. PRMD asserted that the grower has a provisional state license, but at the hearing Deputy County Administrator Niki Berrocal retracted that claim. The road report contains errors about its length and condition, suggesting fire officials never inspected the entire road. Good enough for government work?
At the November meeting, a deputy county counsel who is part of the county’s “Team 420” (420 is slang for cannabis consumer), strained to excuse the falsehoods. She is often chummy with growers – one hugged her at a July code-enforcement hearing where she brokered a sweetheart deal to continue a grow after an illegal electrical installation caused a fire that could have immolated Mark West Springs. She explained that PRMD wants authority to issue permits even when applicants lie or commit fraud. This thumb on the scale approach undermines any fair administration of law. Polluters who lobby Trump’s EPA regulators surely envy the cozy relationships between growers and compliant county officials.
The project violates Bennett Valley Plan’s land-use policies in which commercial development is banned. The applicant seeks a commercial cannabis permit, and the county admits that conditional use permits are development. Commissioner Carr conceded this is “technically” commercial development, but still approved it. Under the plan, development must be coordinated with improved law enforcement. Cannabis notoriously attracts crime, including murders and home invasions. Yet PRMD proposed nothing to implement this policy. Why not protect non-growers by banning cultivation on shared access roads such as this?
This location is in a high fire-risk area. The 10-foot-wide, mile-long dead-end access road violates Cal Fire’s regulations, which require two, 10-foot traffic lanes. The county unconscionably exempts pre-1991 roads (essentially the entire county) from these regulations.
PRMD contends that because it allowed cultivation without a permit since 2017, it is now an “existing use” so that environmental impacts will never be analyzed. The cumulative effects of possibly the highest concentration of grows in Sonoma County must be evaluated. Five endangered aquatic species (mostly amphibians) occur in the Matanzas Creek watershed, but PRMD ignores them. The county also must analyze the extent that grows diminish the value of nearby residences.
This permit has been appealed to the supervisors. Do they want any semblance of integrity in their cannabis program? Many county residents think Washington is corrupt, observing, “no one is above the law.” Those concerned about the appearance of impropriety – or worse – should pay attention closer to home.
Craig S. Harrison is a spokesman for Bennett Valley Citizens for a Ban on Commercial Marijuana Facilities. Deborah A. Eppstein, PhD, is a scientist and retired biotech entrepreneur who lives on Cougar Lane.