Thursday, December 7, 2023

5th District Mendocino Supervisor Offers Perspective on CannaBusiness Land Use & Zoning


The following statement was published on Mendocino County 5th District Supervisor Ted Williams’s Facebook page:

Mendocino County’s cannabis ordinance has been an utter failure, the natural result of an incredibly complex framework mandated by the state and grossly understaffed by county. Supervisor Haschak and I have been actively engaged on a daily basis, working with state agencies, performing pilot studies with staff, digging deep to analyze why the program has failed and brainstorming paths forward. We don’t have all of the answers, but it’s important to review the overarching goal. California voters decided incarceration over a plant was poor public policy and steered our state away from the failed war on drugs. Mendocino County gained the opportunity to legitimize a long standing economic backbone. A robust regulated industry has potential to mitigate unwanted consequences of the industry, namely environmental destruction and violent crime. The first (and only executed) phase focused on prioritizing the transition of existing cultivators, those with proof of prior farming. Using public policy to create a monopoly, essentially rigging the market to only allow legacy cultivators, lacks legal foundation, but starting permitting with a focus of transitioning the existing market was common sense. Out of the estimated 9,000 cultivation sites, about 1,100 applied, with less than 275 receiving county permits and only a few receiving state annual licenses. Annual state licenses will be required starting Jan 1, 2022 when renewal of state provisional licenses are scheduled to sunset.

Mendocino County cultivators are presently positioned to involuntarily revert to the illicit market, jeopardizing the County’s cannabis business tax, which at present generates almost $6M/year in revenue. When California voters approved Proposition 64, cannabis farming was not declared to be agriculture, but rather commercial activity subject to the California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA compliance was met at a county level through a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which went unchallenged. Essentially, grandfathering existing activity did not create a new environmental impact. One of the major obstacles facing the program today is not the result of a poorly crafted county framework or staff execution. Rather, our state’s Department of Food and Agriculture decided to demand site specific CEQA analysis beyond what regulation appears to support. (quote from regulation below.) The county’s fee schedule was not designed around this added requirement, which could add 35,000 hours of planning staff work, well beyond the capabilities of county staffing no matter how many position we open and attempt to fill. Supervisor Haschak and I have not taken an adversarial position with the state, instead pleading for collaboration. The issue is not whether our colleagues will find support to direct staff to complete the state’s work, but rather, basic feasibility.

One fallback position might be for the county to work on county permits, our actual obligation, leaving the state to work with applicants directly to meet state CEQA requirements. This would leave the county in a more manageable position, but will it facilitate the original goal of transitioning the market from illegal to regulated or will the cultivators be forced out of the legal market? CDFA argues the state does not have staff to directly process CEQA documents, even though this is their legal obligation.

On Tuesday, the special BOS meeting will focus on what has been termed Phase 3 cultivation, agendized to discuss and approve a proposed zoning table. Proposition 64 increases the effort to implement a new ordinance after June of 2021. Planning needs to begin now, in order to prepare an ordinance for next spring. We asked Planning to produce a map to visualize the areas which would be eligible for cultivation under the proposed zoning table. Unfortunately, most of the legacy cultivation will be excluded. The problem I see:

• Vision: transition farms from illegal to legal and enforce ordinance

• Most cultivators: on resource land

• Proposed zoning: bans resource land

• Success: inductively impossible.

It’s impossible to force cultivators into the legal market if we ban the cultivator’s land or in the case of this proposal, almost all of our landmass. Our county has very little Ag zoning.

It may be that our entire approach is wrong. Instead of focusing on zoning classifications, should we focus on mitigating specific adverse impacts? Increased commercial traffic does not belong in residential neighborhoods. Forest land should not be cleared. Plastics should be avoided. Environmentally backed and neighborhood protective farming standards, not zoning codes, could steer policy to better balance competing needs. Our model should promote sustainable and resilient cottage farming, not intensive, climate and culture damaging agribusiness. By approving a zoning chart which categorically excludes the bulk of existing cultivation, local regulation will become the new prohibition, furthering an outlaw model and preventing the application of regulation. It leaves law enforcement with two possibilities: look the other way or bust small family farms.

§ 8102. Annual License Application Requirements.(r) Evidence of exemption from, or compliance with, division 13 (commencing with section 21000) of the Public Resources Code, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The evidence provided shall be one of the following:

(1) A signed copy of a project specific Notice of Determination or Notice of Exemption and a copy of the associated CEQA document, or reference to where it may be located electronically, a project description, and/or any accompanying permitting documentation from the local jurisdiction used for review in determining site specific environmental compliance;

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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