In a series of historically brief meetings about cannabis this week, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors gave the nod to proposed revisions of a $17.5 million state grant to bring cannabis cultivators across the finish line in the long slog toward state licensure. A provision to conduct environmental review according to the state’s requirements effectively adds a year to the deadline for provisional license holders to get their state annual licenses. At a special meeting Monday, County Counsel Christian Curtis said there could be even more leeway.
“Our hope is ambitious,” he acknowledged. “But I believe we had set a deadline of July 1st of next year for the EIR to be completed…with the option of DCC (state Department of Cannabis Control) allowing that to be extended to December of next year.”
The Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant Program is supposed to help local jurisdictions usher provisional license holders on to their annual state licenses. But growers in Mendocino County have been tangled up in the application process for years. Those who had no hope of achieving the coveted state annual license in the next few months would no longer be operating legally, no matter how much time and money they had poured into the process.
In March, after the resignation of former cannabis department head Kristin Nevedal, the Board of Supervisors received a letter from Nicole Elliott, Director of California’s Department of Cannabis Control, offering the state’s support in streamlining the permit application process. She wrote that that includes “assessing inefficiencies under existing procedures with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.” A month before that, the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance had sent their own letter to the DCC and the governor, requesting state intervention with the glacial pace of applicants’ progress through an ever-increasing number of hurdles.
Under the interim leadership of John Burkes, the cannabis department presented a plan for the grant that will allocate up to $5 million to a consultant called Ascent Environmental to conduct a programmatic environmental impact report (EIR). The department filed an exception to competitive bidding by stating that the company provides a service that is “practicably available from only one source.” Ascent has performed the same service for Humboldt and Trinity Counties, and was recently selected to do the same for Sonoma County.
Because the county adopted its cultivation ordinance before state’s cannabis regulations came into play, the two sets of rules do not match. The county’s ministerial permit process does not require the site specific environmental review that the state’s discretionary process does. Burkes wrote that, “A programmatic EIR will replace the need for site-specific CEQA review by the county and will allow for processing of annual licenses with the Department of Cannabis Control. This will assist the county in streamlining the Cannabis Department’s workload and better enable the county’s cannabis cultivators to obtain state licenses.”
Curtis told long-time cannabis attorney Hannah Nelson he expects the grant will cover hundreds of applicants. Nelson asked if “there was some kind of a ballpark of how many site-specific reviews were anticipated to be included in that.”
Curtis said there “wasn’t an exact count, but it was in the neighborhood of 500-700 applications that were anticipated to fall within this grant program.”
According to the cannabis department’s report, there are 715 active cannabis cultivation applications submitted to the department. It has issued 125, for a total of 840.
Another $4.8 million from the same grant has been allocated for direct grants to help cultivators bring their properties into compliance with environmental requirements. The revised budget also provides funding for a portion of the salaries of county staff working on administering the grant and increasing contract planners. The department currently has six county planners and fifteen working under contract. There are four vacant planning positions. A report attached to Monday’s General Government committee meeting showed that, according to the preliminary results of an efficiency study, permit review takes approximately 16-80 hours, depending on the complexity of the application. Nevedal’s estimate was 200 hours.
Even with the much-reduced estimate, Burkes told the Board that there are limits to the department’s ability to use the grant to recover all the costs of processing applications. Supervisor Dan Gjerde was dubious about the department’s projections.
“There were some limitations to how much we could ask for, in terms of a cost recovery perspective,” Burkes cautioned. “So we had reviewed this with the state partners and internally, and felt comfortable that we would be satisfying the requirements of the grant in the proposal, but we could always revisit if there are concerns.”
Gjerde told him his concern is that, “For general employees, the county is spending about seventy cents in benefits for every dollar in salaries…so I don’t see how a planner, even a Planner I, eighty percent of their salary and benefits could be $80,000,” as laid out in the proposal.
CEO Darcie Antle emphasized that the grant won’t cover everything the cannabis department does. During budget discussions this week, the board heard the usual grim news about the lack of fat in the general fund.
But Michael Katz, the Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, is encouraged. In an interview after the regular meeting on Tuesday, where the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to accept the proposal, he said, “The changes that we’ve seen come through in the last couple of months are the best indication that this county is starting to shift its perspective on how to support our local licensed cannabis operators…now that we can see this stability coming into shape, we have the ability to focus on additional things for our members, like market access development, different state policies. So we have really been waiting for the opportunity to have some sort of stability and to understand where things are headed for our community, and that hasn’t happened until now…This community is in the best position it has been since regulation started, and I am optimistic that will continue.”