Northern California

Petaluma area cannabis farm agrees to shut down after threat of rackateering lawsuit

A Petaluma-area cannabis cultivation company whose neighbors filed a lawsuit alleging noxious odors and noise will cease operations after harvest, following a deal with Sonoma County’s code enforcement unit.

The tentative agreement includes a provision that the owner of the property who leased land to marijuana grower Carlos Zambrano and his company, Green Earth Co., will amend the deed to bar commercial cannabis cultivation from taking place on the 15-acre Adobe Road parcel in perpetuity. The prohibition will continue regardless of ownership changes, according to Maggie Fleming, spokeswoman with Sonoma County’s permit department.

The outcome is a boon for the neighbors living on Herrerias Way east of Petaluma who banded together to sue Green Earth using a little-known civil portion of the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization, or RICO, Act to stop cannabis cultivation on the vineyard property. They argued the plants, grown on the property starting about April, were too close to residents and the smell caused health problems for the neighborhood.

“Ultimately, we got a good result, but it wasn’t fast enough for my clients,” said Kevin Block, a Napa-based attorney representing the four Herrerias Way families suing Zambrano and Green Earth.

Zambrano and Green Earth did not have a state cultivation license and had applied to receive a county cultivation permit. In May, county code enforcement officers ordered they halt all marijuana farming, which the company appealed. Zambrano and Green Earth were facing more than $1 million in penalties for violations of the cannabis ordinance and building codes.

Friday’s draft agreement was announced at a morning hearing in Sonoma County’s permitting department to address Green Earth’s appeal. Instead, lawyers for the county and Green Earth notified the hearing officer the company will halt all cultivation by Nov. 1 and all cannabis-related activities from the property by Nov. 15, according to Fleming. A final draft of the agreement will be submitted within seven days, and it will include how much of the $1 million in fines the company must pay.

“They are going to have to move, however they are able to complete their current cultivation operation that’s happening now, and that’s significant for them,” said Joe Rogoway, an attorney for Zambrano and Green Earth.

Zambrano was out of the country and unavailable for comment, according to Rogoway.

Rogoway defended his client’s intentions and the company’s attempt to lawfully operate a cannabis cultivation project in Sonoma County. A county tax collection official said Green Earth paid $53,696.28 in taxes for the 2017-2018 tax year.

Rogoway said Zambrano “is just a regular guy” who took a risk by trying to cultivate cannabis in the county. He called Sonoma County’s cannabis ordinance “a systemic failure” that has created a system in which “everyone loses.”

“Probably 95 percent of the cultivators in Sonoma County are not able to avail themselves of the (county’s cannabis) program, and are not able to stay here,” Rogoway said.

“Regardless of this particular settlement, the county’s program is a failure; it’s a debacle.”

Tyra Harrington, Sonoma County’s code enforcement manager, said Green Earth was growing more than 5,000 plants on about 1 acre of land, and had failed to acquire the needed permits for the 40 greenhouse structures, a cargo container and electrical infrastructure. She said the company also didn’t complete paperwork needed to acquire county permission to grow marijuana.

© 2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Visit The Press Democrat at www.pressdemocrat.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.