The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and the public weighed in Tuesday on the future of the county’s marijuana industry and provided direction on cannabis tourism.
“We do have a hard job and we’re not going to please everyone all the time,” 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said. “We have some hard decisions to make.”
Cannabis industry stakeholders, concerned neighbors, attorneys, city officials, businesses and senior citizens gathered in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers in Eureka to discuss lessons learned from the county’s current marijuana rules and how the industry will look by the time the state marijuana regulations come online in 2018.
The proposed changes to the county’s marijuana rules include opening up the market to recreational cannabis following the passage of Proposition 64 last year, addressing conflicts with cities that prohibit cannabis businesses, creating opportunities for cannabis tourism, restricting generator use, creating new rules for cottage marijuana businesses and allowing marijuana farms to open in new agricultural areas.
The hearing was meant to inform county planners as they develop an environmental review of the new rules, which county Planning and Building Director John Ford said will likely be ready for public review by July or August and ready for adoption along with the new rules by the board by the end of November.[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section” curated_ids=””]A large portion of the public speakers were residents and city officials from Fortuna, which has had conflicts with the county’s marijuana regulations since they took effect in February 2016. Fortuna has already prohibited cannabis businesses within city limits, but concerns were raised earlier this year by local residents after proposed cannabis farms and processing centers in county lands near city neighborhoods. Some of the businesses would not require public hearings to obtain their business permits under the current county rules.
“The impact on our neighborhoods is going to be detrimental,” Fortuna Mayor Sue Long told the board.
The issue escalated when a neighborhood association sued the county for these conflicts. City Manager Mark Wheetley told the board that he hoped the county would address the conflicts to avoid any other litigation.
To address the concerns, the county proposed to require all prospective cannabis farms within a city’s sphere of influence or 1,000 feet outside of city limits to obtain a permit that required a public hearing. Many residents, like Tim Meade, did not think this was far enough, with other residents asking for a complete ban of cannabis businesses in their city’s sphere of influence.
Meade stated his 97-year-old father’s house is now 150 feet upwind of proposed mixed-light marijuana greenhouses and will have to live the rest of his life with his window shut to escape the odor.
“All this because the system has failed us,” Meade said. “The county has failed us. You have failed us. This should have never happened to begin with.”
Residents from Willow Creek also expressed concerns about odor from cannabis farms impacting their homes, and called on the board to increase the setbacks of farms from neighborhoods.
The board directed Ford on Tuesday to consider creating special zoning areas for city and community spheres of influence so that the board can address the concerns of each individual area, including potentially banning cultivation altogether for certain areas. Ford stated that any ban put into place would not retroactively affect marijuana businesses that had been approved in these areas before the new rules were put into effect.
For generator use, the board expressed agreement with staff’s proposal to require any existing mixed-light farms to obtain at least 80 percent of their energy from renewable sources if they use generator power. While some farmers have expressed concerns about the financial impacts of these new requirements, the state’s draft rules would ban all generator use.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he does not think generators are needed at all and expressed support for requiring any cannabis business’ power to come from renewable sources, even if they are on a power grid.
“If cannabis comes from Humboldt County, why not have all of it be from renewable power?” Wilson asked.
The draft rules also would allow for construction of “propagation centers” where mother marijuana plants — used to create clones — from multiple farms can be stored during the off-season so that farms can reduce energy use.
Board members also expressed concern about potentially limiting cannabis tourism by requiring businesses to be located on publicly maintained roads in order for tour groups to come through. Instead, Fennell recommended the county look at the quality of the roads as she said most of the smaller cannabis farms hoping to draw tourists are not connected to publicly maintained roads.
To illustrate the county’s changing industry tourism sector, 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn said one of the top tourist attractions for nearly 60 years was the Pacific Lumber Sawmill tour.
“It’s as Estelle said, now we’re going to have to take care of the mother plant,” Bohn said.
Marijuana industry stakeholders expressed their own concerns about road quality requirements, water use restrictions and accommodations for attracting tourists and customers.
Ladybug Herbal Sanctuary owner Nathan Whittington of outer Ferndale expressed concern about changes to some of the county’s water storage and sourcing rules, such as requiring farmers to not draw on their wells during the summer and early fall months as well as requiring fencing to be placed around ponds to prevent impacts to wildlife.
Several board members expressed agreement to Whittington’s concerns about the fencing requirement, but Bohn said that the county should look into phasing in the well water forbearance.
“That’s coming,” Bohn said. “That’s an unavoidable bullet.”
Board members also expressed concern about staff’s proposal to get rid of the 600-foot setback requirement for cannabis businesses near school bus stops. The requirement has already created conflicts in the Southern Humboldt County area, which ended with the Southern Humboldt Unified School District allowing cannabis farmers to obtain a waiver for the rule through their district.
With the state planning to release its draft rules for recreational cannabis businesses near the end of the year, Ford said that there will be “a bit of a timing issue” as that will be when the board will be wrapping up its own rule-making process.
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