Thursday, November 30, 2023

Board of Supervisors Rejects Proposed Cannabis Prohibition Zone Outside Willits

Rock Tree Valley [Image from the application documents for the cannabis prohibition zone]

The Board of Supervisors rejected an application for a cannabis prohibition zone just outside of Willits this week, and directed Code Enforcement to focus its attention on illegal cannabis activity in the area. On the same day, the Board received a report of an enhanced code enforcement action in Redwood Valley, which was the result of a similar decision over the summer.

On July 25th, Redwood Valley residents requested that the Board create a specialty zone in part of their neighborhood, which is mixed residential and agricultural zoning. Cannabis is allowed on ag land, but not small rural residential parcels. The special overlay zone would have made even the ag parcels within the proposed area off-limits to cannabis. Two growers who were trying to establish themselves in the zone would have had to close up shop. The Board declined the request, but ordered a full-court press on the part of Code Enforcement.

Inspectors investigated 137 sites between July 31st and September 7th. They asked property owners to voluntarily cut down illegal plants, and to legalize or demolish non-permitted cannabis infrastructure. In all, 52 sites had cannabis-related violations.

On Tuesday, supervisors declined a request by residents of the Willits Rock Tree neighborhood to create a small district where cannabis would be disallowed. The 18 legal parcels in the proposed district are zoned rangeland or timberland production, which are not currently eligible for cannabis permits under phase III.

Ellen Drell, a Rock Tree resident, said applicants hoped to head off the possibility that future policymakers would decide to expand cannabis into their zoning district. “We’re asking to use a tool the county has provided to neighborhoods to preserve the historic and aesthetic character of their neighborhoods for at least ten years,” which is the lifespan of the prohibition zone, she explained.

Supervisor Maureen Mulheren was also thinking about how changing the zoning could affect future uses of properties. “Every time that we’ve talked about a cannabis prohibition zone, or a cannabis inclusionary zone, it’s essentially limiting the rights of private property owners as they exist today and in the future,” she said, adding that, “Given the fact that any Board, this Board or a future Board can overturn it, it does seem like an unnecessary use of staff resources.”

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The applicants  received a more sympathetic hearing on July 20th, when the Planning Commission recommended 3-0 that the Board approve the prohibition zone, but exclude one parcel with a small grow on it. That grow has been making its way through the county planning process since phase I, when it was permissible to grow on rangeland. Supervisor John Haschak sought clarification, saying, “We’re being asked to approve this prohibition zone for an area that’s already prohibited. Except for the one parcel.” Planner Steven Switzer confirmed this.

Supervisor Ted Williams showed his hand before the applicant presentation. “This is so far off from priorities,” he complained. “And as far as the paranoia about cannabis taking off in this county, it’s come and gone. Cannabis is over. Federal legalization is coming. These small grows won’t make economic sense. Five years from now, nobody’s going to be looking at doing a quarter-acre grow on a TPZ (timberland production zone) or rangeland parcel in Mendocino County. One farm in Lake County is about the same size as 320 farms in Mendocino County. This county’s broke. The Board, instead of focusing on how to keep out of bankruptcy, today is looking at prohibiting cannabis in an area where it’s already prohibited.”

Haschak traced the wish for a prohibition zone to a short-lived ordinance two years ago, Chapter 22.18, which would have expanded cultivation and made permits discretionary, rather than ministerial. The Board voted 4-1 at that time to approve it, with Haschak dissenting. Its supporters believed it would have saved the local cannabis industry. Ellen Drell was one of the leaders of a successful referendum effort to rescind the new ordinance. (Another referendum, which sought to repeal the expansion part of the ordinance, gathered signatures but did not turn them in to the assessor clerk-recorder’s office.) “This is coming from that feeling that, how can they trust the Board in the future,” Hachak remarked.

Robert Cronin, one of the applicants, said in the more than 20 years he’s been in Rock Tree, the county has been indifferent to cannabis-related problems, from recklessly driven water trucks to hundreds of gallons of diesel contaminating a fish-bearing stream. “The county has not guaranteed that they will not ban growing in that valley,” he said. “There’s no guarantee from you. And that’s what this is all about. To get that guarantee that says, hey. We don’t want the stench. We don’t want these trucks coming down our narrow road…We don’t want the lights, the generators. We don’t want any of that stuff. We don’t want our water table taken out. We just want to live in a nice, quiet valley where you can’t hear a sound at night.”

Dale Briggs has been the lone voice in the Rock Tree neighborhood to publicly argue against the prohibition zone. “I believe in property rights,” he told the Board. “And if the time comes that rangeland, which has already been established, is not permitted for commercial grows — But if that changes, do other property owners’ rights supersede my rights, to apply for a permit and see if I could possibly grow on my land?” He went on to say, “Ultimately, if the Board is looking for clean industry…If you’re looking for this kind of stuff, and then you’re going to make these exclusion zones, what are you telling clean industry?”

Supervisor Glenn McGourty weighed the situation before abstaining from the vote. “Two years ago, there was a different climate,” he noted. “And there were some genuine concerns about the expansion of industry. There was also a lot of illegal activity, which I think is still what people react to, and it doesn’t sound like a lot of the grows that were discussed here today ever even bothered with the permit process. It appears that they’re protected now. However, maybe this isn’t constitutionally correct, but I still  believe in neighborhoods having some say over what happens to land use in their area, if they feel it’s very incompatible with what they like about the place.”

The other four supervisors voted in favor of Williams’ motion to decline the application and send in code enforcement.

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    • Fair Enough, but they started the process before that was obvious, and you don’t gotta be so extra about it, calling out the CEO etc. Its all very theater kid and unnecessary. And then to tack on another Planning and Building adventure probably gonna cost $50,000 with negligible benefits

      • The whole back and forth with Cannabis ordinances has been theatre and a waste of resources to the local tax payer. The BOS did mention this was going to happen a few years ago. Mendo doesn’t have enough labor, distribution, or good intent to comply to handle a legal cannabis industry. It’s not extra, it’s just the overt idiocy/delusion of this faux legal industry Mendo’s community has cultivated over the last 7 years.

        • Of course we agree on that, but Cannabis Prohibition Zones were something the BOS said could be applied for, so these people applied for it, and this was before the crash and the prohibition on RL growing, so it made sense at the time, then it went before the Planning Commission and before the board. CEO can’t just not have it heard right? Just let the application sit in limbo forever? I understand the frustration I guess, but it only seems silly because its so obvious now that nobody is going to be building out commercial grows, but it was not obvious then, and I don’t think the CEO really can just not address it.

          • Perhaps; it appears like blind leading the blind. This whole zoning change option to apply for from this perspective appears like a delay tactic to quell the concerns of the public for the time the leadership needed to delay. Whether this was a deflecting move or not, zoning changes are difficult and they often can cause more problems than they fix, as Moe stated. I tend to think it was a faux option from the beginning by the prior leadership. The Cannabis ordinance by itself wouldn’t allow grows larger than 10K sqft, which was written in the original ordinance. There was no way a legal commercial enterprise could rise from the past or current ordinance. Mendo was & is so wrapped up in keeping business local (I.e. Controlled) they would appeal, by popular vote, to anything the BOS did to alter the ordinance, which is what they threatened to do. Mendo had so many economic barriers from the beginning; besides the self inflicting political ones. (Lack of housing, labor, distribution hubs, outside investment, and list goes on.)

  1. There are two farms in so cal that are larger than all grows in mendo and Humboldt combined. The battle is lost. How bout spending time and energy on fires, water, the grid…just saying.

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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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