Sonoma County is beginning its Cannabis Ordinance update.
The update is expected to be fully adopted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in mid-July 2021. The outreach and work plans are expected to be complete by the end of this year, with public outreach happening in full by the beginning of 2020.
Deputy Director of Planning Milan Nevajda said the county will be working to streamline the process for applications, something that has been maligned by those trying to get in the industry and their advocates.
One shift that could save both the applicant and Permit Sonoma, which handles many of the county’s cannabis applications, is transitioning to a ministerial permit versus a discretionary use permit
“We want to make the process a lot more streamlined,” Nevajda said.
Ministerial permits have “very clear, objective standards as to what you need to meet. And if the project meets them, then they can move forward without needing excessive oversight from staff,” he said.
Discretionary permits, on the other hand, “has taken in some cases, two, even three years with a very complex site and complex project with a lot of neighborhood opposition. That’s a really cumbersome process and it’s a significant challenge for those that want to grow and have reasonable grows,” he said.
Comparatively, the cannabis ministerial permits in the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measurements have taken four to six months to review. The Department of Agriculture only issues now in specific cases that typically do not have nearby neighbors.
So far, Permit Sonoma has issued two permits, both of which have been appealed to go before the County Board of Supervisors in September. This is out of 66 permits given by the county total, including a few more given by Permit Sonoma for indoor grows which required less oversight.
Nevajda said there are another 100 or so discretionary permits to go. He said he believes the permit process will begin to pick up steam now that the first couple have gotten the county more used to the process.
“Hopefully whoever is in the pipeline will not be there is two years. That’s not our goal,” he said. “There’s a renewed push from my end to give resources to processing these permits while still maintaining services to all our other areas.”
Nevajda noted that even if a permit was in process when an update takes effect, the application is locked into the regulations that were in place when it was filed and can only switch to the update if the applicant wants to take advantage of something new.
Nevajda said that the County Board of Supervisors have been encouraging of a legal market, including getting people through the relief program that previously operated in the unregulated market.
“If you are on an appropriate site, you’re following the regulations, you’ve been processing everything in good faith, their direction has been clear: the delay has been too long. We need to move these projects forward. And we’re doing everything we can,” Nevajda said.
Still, there can be issues, such as negotiating with neighbors, dealing with modification to the ordinance from last year, which Nevajda said opened up other options, and aquifer protection.
“It hasn’t been a linear path for the applicants, the regulators, anybody. We have to be pivoting constantly to move everything along,” he said.
Not everyone who has been involved in the process has as much faith, however.
“Historically, Permit Sonoma has been struggling to issue any kind of business permit, but specifically cannabis,” cannabis operator and former member of the disbanded Cannabis Advisory Group Shivawn Brady said. “There are people who are suspicious about the backlog of permits and the lack of efficient processing as some sort of tactic to appease (District 1 Supervisor) David Rabbitt’s constituents.”
Brady said that she doesn’t see the current Sonoma County Board of Supervisors as being fully on board with cannabis or the federally legal hemp industries when compared to boards of the past.
“I don’t think that they’ve provided a lot of direction or support to the crafting of our cannabis policy,” she said. “I wouldn’t say anti, just really passive about it.”
Brady said that she has worked in Sonoma County her whole adult life and saw some of the direction that is being given as a “backslide.”
“James Gore introduced a 10-acre minimum parcel size at the last minute. David Rabbit consistently. I mean, he wanted to put in place a cannabis moratorium,” Brady said.
She said the supervisors have acted more to tread lightly and not upset their constituency on a hot topic like cannabis. In addition, the ways of politics may be lost on newcomers to a regulated market.
“They’re farmers. They’re simple. Not not smart. Just not maybe a plugged in as maybe members of the wine industry that have been politically at play for a long time,” she said.
A couple of the suggestions Brady had to improve the ordinance that she brought before county planners on Aug. 29 were:
• Remove the cap of nine dispensaries and the 10-acre cap for cultivators.
• Remove the 1-acre cap and allow cottage cultivation in AR/RR and give back the cottage cannabis industry.
A letter written by attorney Joe Rogoway also expressed concern in the delay, particularly as recreational cannabis passed legalization in the state with 59% in favor.
“The county’s administration has thus far comprehensively failed to effectuate the will of the electorate,” he wrote.
Rather than provide more permits for the large number of people estimated to have already been growing here, he writes, “The county has instead decided to vigorously pursue draconian code enforcement actions, often against people attempting to comply with the penalty relief program, but who are caught in an unworkable paradox of legal inconsistencies created by the county.”
Nevajda said that the goal is to get neighborhood outreach strategies done by November. Then Nevajda said he hopes to get several work groups done through municipal and citizen advisory councils for the public and get a cross section of the industry to come together at meetings as well.
Gore and District 5 Supervisor Linda Hopkins are on the outreach ad hoc committee.
“We’ll try to find those common grounds where everyone can agree and we have clarity for canna-business,” Nevajda said.
More to address
Water use and environmental impact will still be closely monitored, as will the push for cannabis tourism, similar to wine tasting areas at wineries. Since cannabis is not an agricultural crop, water use is not as protected and some in the industry believe water regulations for cannabis will become tests for water regulations for all in the drought-prone area.
Some new issues to be addressed that Nevajda said the county was unable to address earlier were limiting grows in rural areas, increasing setbacks in residential uses as well as sensitive areas that may need higher setbacks, such as near schools.
But once everything works well, the county could look into increasing grow maximum sizes, Nevajda said.
There may also be a way to do edibles manufacturing in commercial zones, something that is not currently allowed at all in the county.
The county will also reexamine “volatile cannabis manufacturing,” where concentrates are extracted using flammable or hazardous chemicals such as a vapor solvent. Before, not much was known about these processes, but now Nevajda said they have had time to look into these procedures and found there may be an acceptable use.