Sonoma County on Friday touted its efforts to rein in unauthorized cannabis operations after facing criticism from some rural residents who say county officials haven’t done enough to shutter pot farms that don’t have permits.
Since the start of last year, code enforcement staff members have forced more than 600 unpermitted cannabis operations to close and billed more than $435,797 in fines, according to a Friday statement from the county’s planning department, Permit Sonoma. The county said it quickly responds to cannabis-related complaints and forces operators to comply with county rules.
Maggie Fleming, spokeswoman for Permit Sonoma, said the statement was issued in response to community feedback and a “lack of understanding that the county was taking action” against cannabis businesses operating without permits.
“We really just wanted to educate people on the work that’s been happening,” she said.
Complaints about the county’s cannabis-related code enforcement were recently lodged by a group of residents outside Petaluma who sued a nearby pot grower in federal court last month. The county had started enforcement actions when the suit was filed, but critics said the process didn’t move fast enough.
In a subsequent deal with county code authorities, the cultivation company tentatively agreed to stop operating after harvest and the owner of the property agreed to amend the deed to prohibit growing marijuana.
Fleming said that property is not included in the list of unpermitted operations the county says it has shut down because the deal is still being finalized.
The county said it has received 682 complaints about cannabis cultivation on private property since January 2017. So far, staff members have inspected 662 of those properties, forcing 638 to stop growing and allowing 24 to continue operating while seeking a permit. Another 20 inspections are scheduled “in the near future,” the county statement said.
Kevin Block, a Napa-based lawyer representing the neighbors outside Petaluma who filed the federal lawsuit, was skeptical of the county’s numbers.
“They paint a picture of swift and effective enforcement, and what I’m seeing and hearing on the ground is anything but,” Block said. “They’re trying their best, I’m sure. I give them credit for that. But what they really need to do is they need to put this cannabis program on hold until they can devote the resources necessary to implement it in an orderly way and to make it work for everybody.”
Assuming the code enforcement deal is finalized and implemented, Block said his clients will still seek damages and attorneys’ fees.
Pot growers, meanwhile, have their own concerns with the county.
Tawnie Logan of Santa Rosa-based Canna Code Compliance said removing illegal operators is “absolutely essential” but the county has been “woefully underperforming” its processing of permits for cannabis growers.
“Operators are going broke. They cannot continue to afford to play the waiting game that the county has put them in,” said Logan, former executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance. “It’s offensive … to say that they’re investing so much money and time into illegal operators while they continue to be understaffed and underperforming for the businesses that want to be compliant and legal.”
© 2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Visit The Press Democrat at www.pressdemocrat.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.