It’s nearing harvest time, and for Permit Sonoma’s code enforcement arm, that means more efforts to stop illegal cannabis grows.
Tyra Harrington is the code enforcement manager for the county. She said there have been 1,027 cannabis sites cited the last three years, with 280 coming this year.
“This is the busy season,” she said. “We’re proactively responding to complaints.”
Most recently, two illegal grows, covering several acres, were found in Petaluma Valley, she said. As the cannabis had yet to be destroyed, she said she could not reveal the exact places yet.
To find unpermitted grows, enforcement officers check for telltale signs of a grow such as tall fences, large greenhouses and looking at who was busted last year. In terms of greenhouses, Harrington said they often look for standalone, large structures, which require a permit. If the structure isn’t permitted, the owner can be stuck with a violation simply for that.
She said that efforts have been made by the county to switch illegal operations to permitted grows with a conditional use permit (CUP), but the county has seen “very few applicants.”
“The decision was made to very proactively go out and address those black market operators,” she said. “We just really want there not to be an unfair advantage.”
She said she’s heard from people who grow illegally that the high cost of acquiring a conditional use permit is the reason they chose to risk growing without one. Those in the permit process wait months and spend $50,000 or significantly more to get through it. So far, Permit Sonoma has granted two CUPs. Other permits have gone through the ministerial process, which currently only applies to rural areas without as much impact to neighboring property and waterways.
“They’d rather take the chance,” she said. “That’s why we’re being so proactive now. To educate people that there is a good chance that you’ll get caught and suffer up to $10,000 a day penalty and more if you get caught a second time.”
Second offenses can have a $25,000 per day fine levied against them. Those unwilling or unable to pay can have a lien put against their property.
Harrington said that another reason grows continue to pop up in the unregulated market in Sonoma County is increased enforcement in counties to the north.
The use of aerial satellite in Humboldt County, for example, could push some operations south, she said.
“This year we are seeing more than we normally do,” she said.
Harrington said the county does not have to have proof that cannabis exists on suspected farms in order to levy a fine, rather it only needs probable cause. Occasionally, the county gets a search warrant to take a closer look but not always.
“Our ordinance does allow … based on our training and experience, if we smell cannabis, we see evidence of cannabis grows … we do post a notice on the property and have the owner contact us and do an inspection,” she said. “We typically try to see it (cannabis) but we don’t need to per the ordinance.”
If an owner refuses the inspection, a penalty can ensue. Appeals can be made for notices afterward to contest findings.
Harrington said that fewer than 50 sites suspected of having cannabis were found not to after an inspection.
Once cannabis has been found, property owners have the obligation to destroy the pot themselves. For most grows, Permit Sonoma conducts another inspection to ensure this has been done; for small operations, however, a picture could suffice.
Harrington said enforcement is year-round but that the harvest ramp up should end when the rainy season arrives and outdoor grows finish.
Contact Permit Sonoma at 707-565-1900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.