Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Proposed Cannabis Prohibition Zones in Redwood Valley and Willits Prove Controversial

[Stock photo from Pixabay.com]

With cannabis regulation now a fact of life in the Emerald Triangle, local citizens’ groups in Mendocino and Humboldt counties are seeking further restrictions. This month, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission have two proposals for cannabis prohibition zones on their agendas. CP zones are overlay, or specialty zoning districts, which create an additional layer of regulations on top of those that already exist in a particular district. In approved CP zones, cannabis cultivation is disallowed for a minimum of ten years if a supermajority of neighbors signs on and obtains approval from the Board. Cultivators in neighborhoods that are designated cannabis prohibition zones have up to three years to shut down operations, depending on how far along they are in the state and county permitting process. The Planning Commission holds an initial hearing and passes its analysis along to the Board, usually with a recommendation for approval or denial.

On Tuesday, the Board will consider a proposal to create a prohibition zone in a part of Redwood Valley. The effort has been decried as racist gerrymandering, because it would only affect two growers, both of whom are Hispanic. The Planning Commission made no recommendation on the proposal after reviewing it in May, with one commissioner calling it “highly inequitable.”

But last week, the Planning Commission recommended approval of another proposal to create a cannabis prohibition zone just east of Willits in a neighborhood called Rock Tree, after agreeing to exclude one parcel that already has a small cannabis operation working its way towards a phase I permit.

And in Humboldt county, voters will decide on a ballot measure crafted by the Cannabis Reform Initiative. If approved, restrictions would include no new or expanded permits for grows larger than 10,000 square feet. Opponents to the Initiative argue that the slate of new policies would be detrimental to many legal cannabis farmers.

The prohibition zones being considered in Mendocino County would mostly disallow grows in areas where cannabis is currently not allowed anyway, though a minority of the parcels in the proposed Redwood Valley zone are eligible. Of the 207 parcels that would comprise the zone in Redwood Valley, 164 are small rural residential properties, where commercial cannabis cultivation is not permissible. The remaining 43 parcels are zoned for agriculture, which is typically an eligible zone.

The 25 parcels in the proposed prohibition zone east of Willits are in rangeland, where cannabis cultivation is not an allowable usage One property owner argued against the proposed zone, saying that if regulations change in the future, he sees no reason he and his heirs should be denied the opportunity to grow a legal crop.

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Eddie Lerman and Kali Perkins are attorneys with the Emerald Law Group, representing the two growers who would be shut down if their neighborhood in Redwood Valley becomes a cannabis prohibition zone. The map of the zone is surrounded by seven grows that would be allowed to continue if the zone is approved. The zone also includes a carve-out that leaves a few hoop houses just outside the boundary.

Ruben Ruiz would have to shut down his operation on Road D if the zone is approved. He has had permits to grow on two parcels since 2018. Perkins says Ruiz has invested over $250,000, not including consultant’s and attorney’s fees, to come into compliance with regulations. He is growing organically and has not received any notices of violation. The property also includes commercial vineyards.

Anarbol Lopez is a phase III applicant on Road E. Perkins says a previous tenant “was not doing things correctly,” but that person was evicted after a Code Enforcement action. In a letter to the Mendocino County Department of Planning and Building Services from May of this year, Lopez wrote that he was not aware of his neighbors’ efforts to submit a proposal for a prohibition zone when he began the intricate application process. He wrote that, while there is no cannabis currently on his property, “If the CP Zone is passed, I will lose all the funds I expended in order to obtain a permit so that I can cultivate cannabis lawfully.” He wrote that he uses a pond for irrigation and frost protection for a vineyard, which he also operates, and that he uses Redwood Valley ag water for the cannabis.

In addition to being surrounded by grows, hoop house operations of various sizes are scattered both within and outside the boundary of the proposed zone. Extensive correspondence to the Planning Commission addresses neighbors’ concerns about water use, crime, traffic, the smell of cannabis, and the use of hazardous chemicals.

Perkins believes that her clients’ race is the real reason that they have been singled out for concerns about the impacts of cannabis. “There are seven permitted grows directly surrounding the border of this zone, four of which are right across the street from the proposed zone,” she emphasized; “So for neighbors to be blaming our clients as the source of odor, which in our county is not even considered a nuisance…all these things that are completely unfounded when you look at our clients’ grow. They’re not using generators. They’re not using groundwater.”

Lerman doubts the legality of the prohibition zone itself. “The bigger picture is, why do we have this as part of our ordinance, and is this even legal?” she asked. “Because to have a section in the law that basically makes it so you’re going to create a prohibition zone that you can’t overturn for ten years, seems like a very serious taking of someone’s property right. Particularly for folks who already have permits. It’s just absurd that we as a county continue to not promote cannabis business-friendly policy. I mean, the name says it all: cannabis prohibition zone. We are still continuing to prohibit cannabis. Even though we realize prohibition doesn’t work.”

Dale Briggs believes that the option of cultivating should be available to him, if regulations in his district change. On Thursday, he told the Planning Commission he owns over 15% of the property that would be included in the Rock Tree prohibition zone east of Willits. Though he noted that cannabis is currently not allowed in rangeland, he argued that, “Cannabis is a legal crop.” If zoning rules change, he asked, “Are we going to restrict current landowners from potential income opportunities based on our past feelings about illegal grows?” He also disputed assertions by the applicants that the neighborhood is more susceptible to fire than other parts of the county, and that commercial cannabis could deplete the valley’s available water.

Ellen Drell, a longtime environmentalist who fought hard to exclude rangeland from the allowable zones, is a resident of the proposed prohibition zone in Rock Tree. She told the Commission she believes that, “Our particular neighborhood is a very good candidate for this designation…I was here during the discussions in the boardroom over the many months, and am well aware of the controversies that resulted in this ordinance…The other thing that keeps coming up is that rangeland and TPZ (timber production zones) are off-limits for cannabis growing, but I’m well aware that that is not necessarily a permanent thing,” in light of recurring efforts to change those zoning designations. “So we feel that this opt-out district is very important to us to provide some stability in our neighborhood and preserve the values that we hold.”

Only three planning commissioners were present at both hearings for the proposed prohibition zones: Cliff Paulin, Marie Jones, and Diane Wiedemann. Because that barely constitutes a quorum, any recommendation proceeding to the Board of Supervisors would have had to have been unanimous. Paulin was a hard no on recommending approval of the Redwood Valley proposal, stating that, “When there are other properties that are in as close or closer proximity to residential areas that are going to be impacted that will not be included in the zone, feels highly inequitable to me.” He added that, “I do have concerns about a precedent that this would set in terms of being able to put off-limits the areas of the county that we have designated as appropriate to cannabis cultivation.” He said that, while he is sympathetic to the complaints about cannabis odors, “There are impacts to all agricultural uses. We have right to farm laws in this state that allow those impacts to take place. If someone wanted to set up a hog farm, they would be allowed to do so, even though it presents challenges to the neighbors as well.”

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Paulin was also initially reluctant to recommend approval of the Rock Tree proposal, noting that it was duplicative in a zone that already prohibits cultivation. The one grower who would have been put out of business is a phase I applicant, who was able to provide proof of prior cultivation, essentially grandfathering their rangeland operation into eligibility. When Jones suggested recommending approval of a prohibition zone that did not include that one parcel, Paulin voted with his colleagues.

But Jones, too, expressed criticism of the prohibition zones. At the end of the contentious meeting about Redwood Valley in May, where commissioners were unable to arrive at a consensus, she stated that, “I think the Board of Supervisors made a mistake when they allowed cannabis cultivations without requiring a use permit. This Planning Commission recommended that they require use permits for that,” a recommendation the Board declined to adopt. “So as a consequence, we have this sort of after the fact process. Which I think is extremely detrimental to everybody. It’s detrimental to the neighbors because they have to organize and survey their neighborhood and come up with this combining zone and come in and complain and have this long process. It’s extremely detrimental to the cannabis cultivators because they’ve invested a lot of money and time into their properties and their businesses that are now at risk. So I think unfortunately, I think we are in this position because the Board of Supervisors lacked vision and lacked an understanding of the consequence of their actions.” However, she chose to support the proposal, noting that the prohibition applicants had an overwhelming two-thirds majority. And she didn’t show much sympathy to the growers who were unaware that their neighbors were mounting an effort to create a prohibition zone, advising, “To the cannabis cultivators, I would say, if your neighbors are pissed off, you need to listen more carefully, and address those concerns.”

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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