EUREKA — Monday’s discussion on the future of Humboldt County’s marijuana industry drew a diverse crowd of cannabis farmers, environmentalists, education officials, tribal representatives, regulators and concerned citizens alike to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors chambers for a chance to weigh in.
The ordinance that went before the board Monday is the first major expansion of the local cannabis industry since the county’s landmark cannabis industry rules were passed in January 2016.
County Planning and Building Department Director John Ford said “ordinance 2.0” is now at its final stage of review before the board, having been crafted after 13 public workshops and meetings held by the county planning commission since September 2017.
“Their recommendation to you is literally a gift,” Ford said. “It’s a gift that comes with a bow wrapped around it, a ribbon on it and it doesn’t come with instructions that say ‘some assembly required.’ It really is a complete proposal for the board’s consideration.”
Opinions of the ordinance varied among the attendees, with many expressing gratitude for proposed changes that will allow for new types of cannabis businesses such as farm retail sales, cannatourism, all-in-one microbusinesses and “bud-and-breakfasts.”
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The ordinance and an associated resolution also reopen the permit application period, cap the number of cultivation permits, remove the requirement that new farms be located on prime agricultural soils, and set renewable energy and generator use standards to name a few of the changes.
A host of issues were on the table at Monday’s meeting. Some of the more controversial ones were whether to cap the number of cultivation permits and size of grows and whether the county had conducted a proper environmental study to justify allowing more farms.
The county is proposing capping the number of cultivation permits to up to 5,000 and the total acreage to up 1,250 within 12 local watersheds. The cap would be reconsidered after watersheds are studied to ensure they can support more farms, according to the ordinance.
Representatives from the Yurok and Karuk tribes, the environmental organization Friends of the Eel River, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife called on the county to revise or redo the environmental analysis of its ordinance before allowing new grows to be permitted. The reason for this restriction is to ensure that those watersheds can support the industry without affecting threatened or endangered species.
“Great weed can be grown almost anywhere in California,” Friends of the Eel River’s Conservation Director Scott Greacen said. “Coho and steelhead cannot.”
Greacen identified Salmon Creek and Redwood Creek in Southern Humboldt County as two of several local watersheds that have already been impacted, but where farms are still being permitted. Salmon Creek resident Jesse Hill said he wants to make sure the regulations work to benefit the watershed where he and others live, but said that one proposal to temporarily prohibit cultivation permits in that area is “targeting people that want to comply.”
“I don’t support that, but I do support a solution that works for the watershed,” Hill said.
Others like Southern Humboldt Concentrates owner Bruce Ayers said that there is already too much cannabis being produced in the state’s legal market than can be consumed. He said rather than permitting more cultivation permits, the county should focus on permitting more manufacturing and distribution permits that allow their crop to get to market and increase the value of their crop by manufacturing it into concentrates.
“The problem with the county right now is unsustainable cannabis,” Ayers said. “That’s what ruined the black market and if you keep issuing these permits like this, you will do the same thing that happened in the black market to the legal market.
“Look at what happened in Oregon,” he continued, referencing reports that show Oregon cannabis prices were dropping by as much as 20 percent per year as a result of competition.
Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said it would be “unconscionable” for the county to exclude “legacy farmers because they didn’t have the money or the wherewithal” to submit an application before the end of 2016.
The county stopped accepting cannabis business applications Dec. 30, 2016. About 2,300 people applied for permits before then, though many permits have been withdrawn since. Ford said earlier this month that about 1,700 applications remain to be processed, with about 120 having been approved.
Ford said Monday that he promises his department will complete all the permit applications from the first ordinance before it starts on those that come after.
Responding to concerns about the cap and the watershed impacts, Ford said their environmental review does not need to take into account the impacts of what was occurring before the industry rules were put into place, but what the impacts are afterward.
“The assumption is that as this industry is regulated … that the environment effects associated with the industry will be decreased,” Ford said.
Growers will also be held to water use and quality rules, including documenting and metering water use, forbearing water diversions and developing a water budget to name a few, Ford said.
The permit cap does not include indoor grows, which Ford said was a misprint. He said the cap “absolutely” needs to include indoor grows.
The board directed staff to come back with options for the permit cap at its April 10 meeting. Board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said Monday he expects the permit cap and the cannabis ordinance will be passed at the April 10 meeting.
The draft ordinance also seeks to correct and learn from issues that were encountered in the last two years. Bus stops are one of these problem areas.
The county’s current rules require cannabis businesses be at least 600 feet away from school bus stops as well as several other sites like schools and churches. Cannabis farmers like Humboldt Boutique Gardens co-owner Ian Herndon said that after spending tens of thousands of dollars to make his farm compliant, they discovered that they couldn’t get their permits approved because bus stops were near their property.
While he said as a father he could understand the intent of the setback, Herndon called on the board to make an exception to this setback rule for indoor grows and non-volatile manufacturing facilities.
“It is in a building with complete odor and security control, and a child would never know what was going on otherwise,” Herndon said.
The board directed staff to come back with options on the bus stop setback.
The ordinance also seeks to resolve disputes with communities like Fortuna that prohibit cannabis businesses. But some say that the changes go either too far or don’t go far enough. Some Fortuna residents were frustrated that the county was permitting farms near the city’s limits or in its sphere of influence through zoning clearance certificates, which do not require a public hearing.
The county is now proposing any new farms within 1,000 feet of a city or tribal land or within a city’s sphere of influence to obtain a special permit, whereby nearby residents would be notified and given the chance to appeal it.
The county is also proposing to impose retroactive rules on outdoor and mixed-light farms that have already been permitted in this area by mandating they do one of the following: move their cultivation area at least 600 feet away from neighboring residences; moving their operations into an enclosed, odor-controlled structure; going through the permitting process again but instead obtaining a conditional use permit, which requires a full public hearing; or relinquishing the permit altogether or relocating under the county’s farm relocation program.
Humboldt Growers Alliance Executive Director Terra Carver said her organization opposes this requirement. The board did not discuss these requirements Monday.
Fortuna Mayor Sue Long said these measures are not enough and that the county should ban any new permits within a city’s sphere of influence.
“I know for sure that a special permitting process is not going to work,” Long said. “We want a setback, we want it out of our sphere of influence, we don’t want it in our city.”
Yurok Tribe general counsel Amy Cordalis said that impacts by the cannabis industry on the tribe’s members and cultural resources, such as watersheds and salmon, have the potential of violating tribe’s right to religious freedom. She said that the 1,000-foot setback does not protect against that.
“Without preserving the natural, holistic, serene and pure qualities of that natural environment, all of that and its religious qualities are potentially disrupted,” Cordalis said.
The county is currently in ongoing consultation with the Yurok Tribe about the ordinance, according to Sundberg.
With all the changes being proposed, some public commenters questioned how the county would be able to enforce many of the provisions with the current staffing.
“The county needs more enforcement in order to make this work,” Department of Fish and Wildlife Watershed Enforcement Team senior environmental scientist Scott Bauer said.
There were some moments of levity during the nearly six-hour meeting. Snickering could be heard from the board’s dais and the audience when Ford read this proposed rule: “The burning of plant material associated with the cultivation and processing of commercial cannabis is prohibited.”
“This doesn’t involve consumption,” Ford said to clarify, cracking a smile himself.
Pot humor aside, Carver disagreed with this proposal, stating that burning of this material deters the spread of pests and disease and is a standard agricultural practice.