Thursday, July 25, 2024

Redwood Valley’s Proposed Cannabis Prohibition Zone Intended to Fight Nuisance Grows Could Catch Legal Cannabis Farmers in the Dragnet

View of vineyards on Road I, Redwood Valley [Photo by Monica Huettl]

In September 2021, a group of Redwood Valley residents banded together decrying the cannabis industry’s effect on their community. Their solution: rezone part of Redwood Valley as a Cannabis Prohibition Zone.

Now, a year and a half later, their proposal will be considered by Mendocino County’s Planning Commission. One Redwood Valley cannabis cultivator, who has weathered the fall of local cannabis, is concerned his state-licensed farm could be caught in the dragnet.

Efforts to prohibit cannabis in Redwood Valley began in September 2021. It had been a long, hot, dusty summer and the citizens of Redwood Valley were suffering from drought, fires, and the irritation of dealing with Covid restrictions. The Redwood Valley County Water District imposed mandatory rationing of 55 gallons per day per person for domestic users and cut off all ag water. Some people blamed the cannabis grows for sucking up all the water. 

Community members banded together and filed an application with the County’s Planning Commission to make the area to the east of Lions Park, roughly bounded by Road D, Colony Drive, Road I, and East Road, a cannabis-prohibited zone. 

Twenty-six residents wrote letters of concern regarding the cannabis industry’s effect on their community focusing on water use, crime; and, environmental issues. 

These community members provided a laundry list of issues cannabis had brought to their doorsteps. Cannabis growers were said to steal water, walk dogs unleashed, harm the environment, and ruin the valley’s view with “massive” hoop houses which also caused light pollution. The cannabis growers reportedly brought outsiders into the area to work on their grows where cash, firearms, and product were stored. The growers were said to speed and drive recklessly on local roads that were damaged by water haulers and heavy equipment heading to the hoop houses. Some residents suffered from allergies caused by cannabis. Others described feeling helpless and depressed fearful to speak out against the cannabis culture. 

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The rezoning request was signed by Kathleen Gilley representing the contingent of concerned citizens advocating for an exclusion zone. Upon reaching out, she declined our request for an interview. (The request and all supporting and opposing documents are available online at this County Planning Commission link under the May 18 hearing date.) 

A lot has changed in Redwood Valley since that summer. Community members say it is much quieter since the price of cannabis has dropped dramatically. The County has been issuing code violation notices to illegal grows. Farmers have ag water again (for now). The Cal Fire planes based at the Ukiah airport put out most of last summer’s fires very quickly. Flow Kana, the biggest licensed cannabis operation in Redwood Valley, is mostly gone. Facebook Marketplace is rife with growers attempting to liquidate their farms selling water pipes, water tanks, soil, hoop houses, and other growing equipment. Real estate prices have dropped. The average home price in Mendocino County dropped from $509,000 in March 2022 to $492,000 in March 2023 according to the California Association of Realtors. County tax revenues are down, as reported on April 23 in the Ukiah Daily Journal. Local law enforcement is reporting that illegal cannabis growers are packing up and leaving Mendocino County.

Despite the shifting sands of local cannabis and the concerns that gave rise to the cannabis prohibition zone proposal decreasing, the proposal has gone through two rounds of vetting with the Mendocino County Planning Commission and is up for discussion yet again on May 18, 2023, at 9:00 am. 

View of Vineyards and Hoop Houses, Driving on Road D, Redwood Valley [Photo by Monica Huettl

Two cannabis grows located on Road D in the proposed prohibition zone have weathered the cannabis market’s decline. These are not guerilla grows. The licensee for these sites applied under Phase 1, has Application Receipts with the County (allowing cultivation as long as permitted by the State) and has active Provisional State Licenses. Cultivation on the properties is legal and regulated at both sites on Road D, even though neither has full County Permits or State Annual Licenses yet. 

A third cultivation site on Road E submitted an application under Phase 3, and does not yet grow cannabis. 

Editte Lerman, the attorney for the Redwood Valley cultivators that could be displaced due to the proposed prohibition zone, posted documents online with the Planning Commission stating that the complaints associated with noise, light, and odd hours “could have easily been addressed by contacting my clients. However, no such communications ever occurred. Perhaps the applicants’ unfounded fear prevented any such communication.” 

She argued that a solution from the Planning Commission was unnecessary because “Many of the complaints are regulated by the Mendocino County Code. We do not need any further regulations.”

Many of the residents who signed the prohibition application own homes in what is known as RR-1 zoning where cannabis cultivation is already prohibited. Lerman argues that these homeowners have no standing to prohibit cultivation when their zone already does.

Community concerns about cannabis’s role in water insecurity do not take into consideration how highly regulated water is within the legal cannabis market. Attorney Kali Perkins, of the Emerald Law Group, said legal grows are monitored by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the State Water Resources Control Board, and they have to file annual reports regarding their water usage.

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There are only three properties involved in cannabis within the exclusion zone. All three are owned and operated by Latino cultivators who are either current permit holders or applicants There are at least seven other permitted grows outside the boundaries of (but close to) the proposed exclusion zone.

Lerman wonders if the proposed cannabis exclusion zone could be racially motivated, given three minority-owned businesses face being displaced, while seven other cannabis permits, directly bordering the proposed zone, will be allowed to remain

Mendocino County’s requirements for cannabis permits are known as some of the most onerous in California and the Cannabis Department has been woefully slow to process applications. The operator of the two permitted and licensed grows on Road D has spent close to $250,000 (not including the consultant or attorneys’ fees) to comply with all the requirements. Now, after spending countless hours and fortune becoming a legal cannabis grower, some residents want to shut them down, prohibiting any and all cannabis businesses within the prohibition zone.

Photo of Ruben Ruiz and Kali Perkins, Esq., at Cultivation Site/Vineyard, Road D. Photo by Monica Huettl

To get a look for ourselves at the Redwood Valley cultivation sites facing displacement by the proposed prohibition zone, we arranged a tour of the properties with Attorney Kali Perkins. All three of these sites are located within well-established, working vineyards, which are also managed by the cannabis applicants. 

We met with Ruben Ruiz, of BayPharms Incorporated, the licensee for the two sites on Road D. These two sites were neat and clean. There were a few workers engaged in adding a lattice strip to the top of the fence so that the hoop houses would not be visible from the road. There were no dogs in sight. Ruben is a family man and has three young children. These sites have never received any code enforcement notices of violation.

Ruiz has planted lavender around the outer perimeter of the fence in hopes of mitigating the smell of cannabis. The strains currently under cultivation are bred to have a fruity smell, rather than the skunky-diesel odor that many people find objectionable. The odor of the plants, which were beginning to flower, was barely noticeable when standing right next to the hoop house. 

Ruiz’s property is beautiful, with a heritage pond, used for the vineyard only, full of turtles, frogs, and ducks. There is a well on each parcel. This property is also a customer of Redwood Valley County Water District and receives ag water. Water use is measured and metered and must comply with requirements from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board. Pesticides are compliant with OMRI standards.

Ruiz explained that the agencies regulating cannabis prefer that the grows are done on existing ag land. For instance, a vineyard is already under cultivation, as opposed to rangeland or timberland. 

Next, we met with Ukiah-raised Anarbol Lopez, a family man with children who owns a vineyard on Road E. Anarbol has applied for a license to cultivate cannabis under Mendocino County’s Phase 3. Applicants for Phase 3 like Lopez cannot cultivate at all until the County and State have both reviewed and approved the applications.  While waiting for approval, Lopez has incurred expenses from consultants, builders, and all the outside agencies whose regulations he must comply with in order to get the site ready. 

Currently, Lopez expects approval to be a one to two-year wait. His empty hoop houses are surrounded by an eight-foot-tall fence. There were no workers present, and no dogs. Anarbol employs crews to manage the vineyards. The site has ag water and a pond, as well as water delivery from licensed, legal water delivery trucks. Anarbol is from Ukiah, a local business owner, and he is a family man with children. 

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We spoke with Jim Shields, publisher of the Mendocino County Observer and District Manager of the Laytonville Water District, who submitted a letter in support of the cannabis prohibition zone to the Planning Commission.

Shields told us he was asked to assist the group led by Kathleen Gilley because he has served on many County Boards and Commissions. 

His community of Laytonville has experience with cannabis zoning regulation. Unlike the proposed prohibition zone in Redwood Valley (which he described as an “opt-out” approach), Laytonville has a cannabis Accommodation Combining District (opt-in) set aside for those who want fewer restrictions on cannabis cultivation. 

Shields cited two criteria defined by County Code Chapter 20.119 that must be met to implement either an opt-out or opt-in zoning approach:

(1) A petition that demonstrates support for the proposed CP district by more than sixty percent (60%) of the affected property owners (as demonstrated by one (1) owner’s signature per legal parcel) within the proposed CP district; or

(2)  An alternative demonstration of landowner support, including but not limited to a landowner survey conducted by the County and funded by the applicant, or other method as approved by the County.

Shields, who is not an attorney, says that the above language does not require any reasons to be given for the opt-out zone. All that the code requires is 60% of the parcel owners to sign on to change the zoning. The boundaries of the prohibition zone will determine which parcel owners are part of the zone and have standing to sign the petition.

Shields told us the opt-in and opt-out model came about in the early days of cannabis legalization. The County hired a consultant to work out a pilot study, or a test run, for an opt-in or opt-out district. Laytonville’s opt-in zone was the pilot project. Years later, the opt-in and opt-out code was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2018.

Michael Katz, the Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, described the codes governing cannabis prohibition districts as an unfortunate holdover from the days of cannabis prohibition.

“Applicants to cultivate cannabis in Mendocino County have jumped through flaming moving hoops for years,” says Michael Katz.

Contrary to the characterization of enormous cannabis grows, Katz said licensed operations can only be 10,000 square feet or less of flowering cannabis. This ends up around a quarter of an acre. (The 10,000 square foot limit only measures the area containing growing plants, not the driveways, walkways, sheds, etc. in between hoop houses inside the fenced area).

Katz wants to see more support for licensed operators who he said are contributing to the economy of Mendocino County. In the past six years, Katz said applicants to legally cultivate cannabis have had to comply with many more requirements than any other type of business in Mendocino County. This is not the fault of operators who are trying to comply. 

In the past six years, Katz said applicants to legally cultivate cannabis have had to comply with many more requirements than any other type of business in Mendocino County. Redwood Valley’s proposed prohibition zone will further limit the available parcels on which a permit may be obtained, Katz argued. Changing licensing requirements and establishing prohibition zones do nothing to address unregulated and illegal growers.  

Katz said the Mendocino Coastal hub of Fort Bragg passed a cannabis prohibition zone. In the aftermath, three licensed cannabis cultivators were driven from their places of business. Two of the three shut down and left the county completely. Another re-located at great personal expense and essentially lost their entire investment. They are still struggling to recover from the financial loss.

Candidates for Mendocino County’s  District 1 Supervisor have already emerged in preparation for the 2024 elections. The District 1 Supervisor represents Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Calpella, Talmage, and a portion of Hopland. We reached out to them for their thoughts on the proposed cannabis prohibition zone. 

Candidate Adam Gaska said he understands those who support the exclusion zone say, “It’s because they want to feel safe in their neighborhood, and right now they don’t.” But, he argues this zone will not “fix the problems with unlicensed cannabis grows.”

The prohibition zone proposal offers “no increases in penalties or any other mechanisms to force county code enforcement to do their job and serve abatement notices on unlicensed grows, which is really why there is a problem.”

Gaska pins problems of cannabis in Redwood Valley on a “failure of the county to enforce the law and regulations. People that are breaking the law will not be deterred if we don’t even enforce the ones we have.”

In an attempt to rid Redwood Valley of illegal grows, Gaska fears “two licensed operators who have already invested large amounts of time, money and effort into licensing will be further victimized if the ordinance is passed because they will lose their ability to operate in their current location.”

Candidate Trevor Mockel told us he is not well studied on the situation, but said it is “worrisome to set a precedent to limit what agricultural property owners can do with their property.”

Candidate Carrie Shattuck refrained from comment waiting to attend the Planning Commission meeting to learn more about the issue.

Madeline Cline said I don’t currently have comments re cannabis prohibition at this time. I’d be happy to give comments in the future.

In a recent meeting of the Redwood Valley Municipal Advisory Council, Chair Dolly Riley said the body “does not have an official position on this.” 

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told attendees his marijuana enforcement team will be flying above Mendocino County spotting illegal grows. Their enforcement efforts will prioritize trespass grows, environmentally destructive grows, and grows where violence and illegal trafficking are rampant.

Kali Perkins, an attorney with the Emerald Law Group, and her client, Anarbol Lopez, addressed the body stating exclusion zones harm those who are trying to do things legally, while not addressing the problem of illegal growth.

For those interested in attending the May 18 hearing, here is a link to the Planning Commission agenda, showing the address of the hearing and containing a video link for those who cannot attend in person.

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      • I did read. He said clearly, don’t think he stuttered, Latino cultivators. We know the cartels are big drug suppliers and in the past have owned vineyards in this county and nearby counties in order to hide their pot grows. And I’m sure that the cartels are involved in lots of unethical activities, including owning pot farms.

        • Article says Latino Ukiah locals. Why would some Latino ukiah locals with family here form a cartel? I don’t think you understand the definition of what a cartel really is. Besides, it’s 2023 the marijuana market isn’t what it used to be so I’m sure serious drug organizations have moved on far past that.

    • Wow. You really are the most racist person I’ve ever imagined to live in this state. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  1. As a son of this valley who grew up on a pear and grape ranch , I can say that pumice also stinks, pears are sprayed with stinky pesticides in spring, many family members have died of cancer from being casual with chemicals, that actual crimes took place on the ranch (think rape, murder) committed by people thinking they’re out in the wild. Horrible racist practices using one race in particular occurred and continue to occur. I remember my family member and owner of ranch freaking out when he had to comply with new laws requiring shade for workers (mexican people). The sub par migrant housing is horrible and OH YEAH, wine is an acceptable drug, and alcoholism is rampant- especially in my own family. By making marijuana only grow able in ag land, we are just giving this power to the already existing grape growers who are adept at tax evasion and using cancer chemicals. Saftey is relative!

  2. An article written and titled about targeting nuisance grows. And then bringing it to the readers attention how many legal cannabis license holders/applicants are of Mexican nationality. What’s that all about? Am I to assume you are implying there is a correlation between the two? Or is that part of the article a little out of context? I think that was distasteful inappropriate.

      • You’re right, I should’ve quoted the article better. But if I’m not mistaken this zoning thing was voted on years ago. And for the farmer sake I hope they get to keep their farms. If someone is going to make an assumption about racial bias I would hope they would have something to back it up with. Otherwise it just feels like a negative stereotype is being pushed. I’m all for the first amendment but if there’s actually any evidence behind it it would be nice to know a little more information.

  3. I guess I could understand why for conversation sake the idea could be brought to attention, and I truly hope that’s not happening. If it’s true I hope it comes out. But racial motivation would most likely be hard to prove in court. Especially at the county level. If you acquire substantial evidence of that it would be appreciated if you publish that.

  4. I recently bought property on Road D which is directly above and looks out on Rueben’s operation and the vineyard next to it. It is very professionally run and has not caused any issues around noise or anything else for me. I do not think this zoning change makes any sense. The cannibis operation is no more impactful than the many vineyards around here.

    • “I just bought the property next to the ranch there and I gotta say that I’ve never had a problem. Charlie has always been been polite and the girls? The girls have been the sweetest. Always singing and dancing and laughing like they didn’t have a care in the world”.

    • I really think the vast majority of us don’t so much have a problem with cannabis culture etc, it’s just that plastic tarp greenhouses are ugly. They’re on every hillside.


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Monica Huettl
Monica Huettl
Mendocino County Resident, Annoying Horse Girl.

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