Saturday, July 20, 2024

Frustration Mounts as California Assesses the Environmental Impact of Mendocino’s Cannabis Ordinance

[Stock Photo by Matt LaFever]

The frustration of cannabis cultivators was palpable as the state Department of Cannabis Control geared up to compile an Environmental Impact Report, or EIR, that is expected to replace the need for site-specific environmental scrutiny of cannabis cultivation in Mendocino County. The county’s ministerial ordinance does not require every grow site to undergo environmental review. But the state’s discretionary process does, which means the two sets of regulations do not match. Growers have spent tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on ever more complex environmental documents and remediations in an effort to come into compliance with the laws, which continue to be amended. The county’s cultivation ordinance is now in the process of being streamlined.

Growers were beginning to panic, as the deadline to obtain state licensure loomed and many of them had still not gotten through the county process. Then, in March, after Kristin Nevedal, the county’s Cannabis Department Director resigned, Nicole Elliott, the Director of California’s Department of Cannabis Control, offered the state’s assistance in “assessing inefficiencies under existing procedures with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.” The Board of Supervisors agreed to use up to $5 million from a state grant to hire a contractor, Ascent Environmental, to prepare the EIR. Nevedal had won $17.5 million from the Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant Program, which the state gave to local jurisdictions to help provisional license holders satisfy the requirements for their annual state licenses.

On August 22, Ascent Environmental held its scoping meeting, where its contractors heard public comment prior to drafting the EIR. They did not respond to comments or answer any questions. This comment period, on the preparation of the EIR, ends on August 31st. You can email your input to publiccomment@cannabis.ca.gov.

According to the notice of preparation documentation, the DCC has issued approximately 608 provisional commercial cannabis cultivation licenses in Mendocino County. The EIR is supposed to evaluate the environmental impacts of current and future licensed cannabis grows.

Kirsten Burrowes, with Ascent Environmental, outlined the process, including further opportunities for public comment. “The first step is the scoping period, and that is intended to gather public and agency input on the scope of the EIR,” she said. After that, a draft EIR will be prepared and then circulated for public review, which includes comment and the disclosure of environmental impacts, for 45 days. A notice of availability will be sent out to alert interested parties that the draft EIR is open for comment, and to provide notice of a hearing date. This will be followed by the final EIR, which will include responses to the comments that have been gathered in the initial phases.

But long-time growers and advocates were frustrated with what many view as another hassle on the long road to licensure. Swami Chaitanya brought up Appendix G, an elaborate multi-agency mechanism by which local growers document their compliance with environmental regulations.

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“We’re talking about a total cultivation area of, what, perhaps 200 acres in the county,” he estimated. “What kind of environmental impact is that going to have? It just seems to me that you’re doing something that doesn’t need any doing, and we’ve already done our mitigated negative declaration and most of us have already done our Appendix G and spent thousands of dollars on it. Tens of thousands of dollars on it. Why are you making us go through all this again? Especially when cannabis is an agricultural crop and agricultural other things don’t even require the CEQA report. I just don’t understand why you’re doing all this and preventing us from just being legal annual growers.”

The cost of Appendix G and the small amount of land under cannabis cultivation came up often, especially since one of the items under consideration in the EIR will be the possibility of growth-inducing effects. Michael Katz, the Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, asked that the environmental documents consider how little growth has taken place.

“When this program was initially started, it was projected that potentially up to 10,000 operators could have entered,” he recalled. “So just to put things in perspective, as of 2020, there were about 290 total estimated licensed acres of cannabis here in Mendocino County. I think it would be fair to say that that number has probably dipped significantly in the last few years, due to attrition, unfortunately…by comparison to that 290 acres, there are about 16,000 acres of wine grapes in the county. And so when we talk about the significant impact of these postage-stamp sized operations, there really isn’t one, comparatively.”

Other commenters reminded the contractors that many of the environmental impacts at grow sites pre-date the grows. They asked that the baseline not include the environmental degradation that’s occurred due to illegal cultivation. And Chantal Simonpietri asked for broader context: “That the EIR analysis include comparative metrics to other types of ag industry per acre in existence in Mendocino County…to have a context under which the definitions of impacts is significant or insignificant are based, and have them be relative to other types of ag.”

Susan Tibben had a request, too. “We ask you very, very sincerely, but somewhat desperately, because there are very few of us left,” she urged; “That you take into account what we have already done; what we are doing; and what we can contribute and want to contribute to the ever-diminishing health of Mendocino County’s economy.”

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  1. “as of 2020, there were about 290 total estimated licensed acres of cannabis here in Mendocino County.”…..wow! Go on Google Earth and see all the ILLEGAL/UNLICENSED cannabis grows! I would have to guess its 10 times the number of licensed grows! Incredible how fucked up the licensing process is, county and state!


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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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