The Riverside County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on whether to license and regulate nearly every type of commercial marijuana business permitted under state law in the county’s unincorporated areas.
If approved, some details would still need to be worked out, including development agreements and fees for businesses. But if the board approves the plan that’s been in development for more than a year, businesses that get permits and follow 62 pages of local rules will soon be able to grow, manufacture, distribute, test and sell marijuana products in some county zones.
Riverside County has long had a ban on all types of marijuana businesses. But that hasn’t stopped farms and shops from popping up throughout unincorporated communities like Anza, Garner Valley and Idyllwild, with many operations relying on protection through the state’s once-loose medical marijuana laws. And the county acknowledges that it hasn’t had the resources to effectively crack down on these illicit operations, even though they make some residents feel unsafe.
Susan Hamilton told the county that vicious dogs being used to guard illegal farms in her unincorporated community have attacked her pet dog and pet donkey.
“It is hard to imagine coming home from work and seeing men with guns, passing back and forth in front of your neighbor’s house,” Jackie Hare, a resident of Anza, wrote to the county. “Then as you relax on the patio and have your grandson over for a swim, you can see a big tent over the fence and another guard holding a gun. Then as you go to bed with your window open, you have to close it because of the stink plus the bright lights marking it hard to sleep.”
But the county also has heard from many longtime and aspiring cannabis business owners who are serious about paying taxes, following the law and doing things by the book. They just want a shot at capturing some of California’s massive market, which is booming since the state legalized recreational cannabis in 2016 and started permitting sales Jan. 1.
“I implore the board to be fair to homeowners in the unincorporated areas of Riverside County, who have the space to cultivate to be allowed to pursue a legal business,” Armond Wilkerson, a 32-year resident, wrote to the board.
Wilkerson said he’s a family man with 20 acres of land, a custom-built home, serious money invested and a self-sustaining farm ready to go for the moment he can start legally growing marijuana.
“Farming is in my blood, as long as I can trace it back! It has been my lifelong dream. Cannabis would just make it profitable.”
County staff tried to balance those opposing concerns by drafting regulations that ban outdoor grows and have strict security, odor control and property setback rules while also permitting all segments of the industry somewhere in the county. And, after recouping the $100,900 it will take in general fund money to get the regulated program up and going this fiscal year, funds raised through development agreements with licensed businesses will be used in part to aggressively pursue illegal operators.
The planning commission held a hearing on draft rules in June, with mostly minor changes made to the version up for a vote Tuesday. That includes adding stricter rules for fencing around cultivation sites, wastewater discharge and business signs while blocking drive-through retail options. And it includes loosening some rules seen as onerous, such as dropping a requirement that shops selling both medical and recreational marijuana have separate entrances.
But two issues raised during that meeting are still up in the air.
One is whether to allow cannabis lounges in unincorporated areas. The state doesn’t license those facilities, but cities and counties can choose to welcome them. Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs and West Hollywood are among the only places in Southern California with policies in place to allow for cannabis lounges, though none have yet opened.
The far more contentious issue still up for debate is whether to permit cannabis businesses in the county’s rural agricultural, rural residential and controlled development zones.
Dozens of people wrote to the county asking them to keep marijuana businesses out of all residential zones, with Anza residents writing that it would “alter the character” of their community and make them feel unsafe in their homes.
Morgan Night, who owns Hicksville Pines Bud and Breakfast resort in Idyllwild, originally wanted to open a dispensary in conjunction with his hotel. With that not looking likely, he’s asking the board to at least allow marijuana delivery services in the “village tourist residential” zone. But either way, he said, “The idea was always having a hotel people could consume cannabis without judgement and that’s more important to me than selling.”
Staff is asking the board for direction Tuesday on whether they should further study both issues.
One other rule change that likely needs to be addressed involves the county’s plan to allow temporary cannabis events.
State law previously said such festivals could only be held at 80 county fairgrounds and agricultural districts scattered throughout the state, such as Lake Perris fairgrounds. And the Riverside County ordinance still limits events to those locations. But Gov. Jerry Brown in September signed a bill that gives cities and counties the authority to permit marijuana events, including onsite consumption and sales, at any venue they choose. That will likely make Lake Perris a bit less of a hot ticket for marijuana events, though its capacity and amenities have been attracting more festivals in recent years.
The board is slated to vote on the plan during the meeting that starts at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the County Administrative Center, at 4080 Lemon St. in Riverside.