Streamlined permit process eliminates public hearing process
Long-awaited updates to Sonoma County’s cannabis cultivation rules are headed to public hearings in the coming weeks and are already being received with applause by potential growers and trepidation by some rural property owners. The 30-page working draft greatly simplifies the grower’s application process, moving permitting authority to the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s office and eliminating pre-application public zoning or land use hearings.
The draft Commercial Cannabis Cultivation ordinance also covers required security measures, water use, strict cultivation setbacks from property lines, required renewable energy use, air quality and odor standards and annual inspection and potential penalty measures.
Local cannabis growers and advocates praise the county for better aligning the new rules with California state laws and for including more clear and objective permit requirements. Worried neighbors fear that issues around neighborhood compatibility and impacts of safety, increased traffic on narrow rural roads and possible impacts to groundwater reserves and fire safety are being de-emphasized in the new draft, weakening requirements in the current ordinance drafted in 2018.
“We’ve been waiting three years and we think this (ordinance update) looks great,” said Ron Ferrero, owner of Elyon Cannabis, a small farmer-focused growing and processing company. “We’ve been limited in the past by acreage limits and the unclear application process. We’re ready to better compete with other parts of California and bring tons of jobs here and do what we can do best — use the Sonoma County climate to provide a quality craft-based product.”
Future rural neighbors of commercial cultivation operations lack Ferrero’s enthusiasm.
“We’re concerned these new proposals are more lax on neighborhood compatibility and discount all the previous public input on security concerns,” said west county resident Bill Krawetz. “How is a crop that requires 24/7 security controls just like any other crop?”
The updated ordinance would move the permitting process away from public zoning hearings by the county’s planning department to a “ministerial” process at the Ag Commissioner’s office.
“A ministerial permit is a permit that is granted upon determination that a proposed project complies with established standards set forth in the zoning ordinance. These determinations are arrived at through reference to objective standards, involve little time or no personal judgment and are issued by authorized staff,” explained McCall Miller, from the county administrator’s office. Permits must be renewed every five years and annual inspections by the Ag Commissioner’s staff are required.
With the move to over-the-counter permits, members of the public or neighbors would have to wait for a project to be approved and operating before making any complaints or raising objections.
“Because the issuance of ministerial permits is based on objective criteria,” Miller said, “there is no discretion for the county to exercise. If a citizen believes the county issued a ministerial permit in error, the ordinance provides for judicial review. It is not atypical for code enforcement to be complaint-driven.”
Miller said the proposed ordinance requires annual inspections by the Ag Commissioners’ staff, providing for what he calls “proactive inspections.”
“We think this (application process) needs to be in the Ag Commissioner’s office,” said Craig Litwin of the 421 Group, a consulting and advocacy organization for the local cannabis industry. “Cannabis is legal and it is here to stay. We need to get aligned with the state laws and help our local smaller farmers begin to succeed.”
The proposed changes to the ordinance do not impact county taxes in place on cannabis cultivation and other activities. Based on the county’s ad hoc committee quarterly report in November 2020, the county has collected $8.2 million in Cannabis Business Taxes from 2017 to 2019.
California voters approved the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Prop 64) in 2016. Since that time, the county has received just over 200 cannabis-related permits. These include cultivation, nurseries, manufacturing, transporting, test laboratories and dispensaries, according to a recent staff update to the ad hoc committee, that is led by county supervisors Lynda Hopkins and James Gore.
Commercial cannabis cultivation is only allowed on properties with agricultural or rural resource zoning. Minimum parcel size is 10 acres and cultivated canopies must be set 100 feet from all property lines and 300 feet from any neighboring structure. Properties that are 10 to 20 acres are limited to one acre of canopy. Parcels over 20 acres are limited to 10% of the acreage. (A 100-acre parcel with adequate setbacks could be approved for 10 acres of canopy.) Cannabis grows must not be visible from public views and right-of-ways.
In a related environmental impact study, the county’s cannabis staff determined that there are 65,753 acres in the county that could be future locations for commercial cannabis grows.
“That will never happen,” said Ferraro. “I’ve scouted every acre of dirt in the county and there are so many stream setback, slopes, habitat and public view restrictions that I think we’d be luck to see 10% of that number.”
Krawetz and other rural property owners have formed a Save our Sonoma Neighborhoods cannabis project watchdog group. A Bloomfield Concerned Citizens group is protesting a cannabis cultivation application on the former Zimmerman dairy farm property at 6405 Cockrill Street. They cite safety issues and refer to recent years of violence, armed theft and murders at outlaw pot operations. They list additional concerns over property values, wildfire dangers, unknown groundwater impacts, odors and other quality of life issues.
“We’re not anti-cannabis,” said Jim Bracco, of Bloomfield. “I think most of us probably voted for Prop 64, but we have a lot of concerns that aren’t being answered.”
Litwin thinks improving the county’s application process will begin to address past safety concerns. “We tell our clients it’s important to build good relationships. We’re all dealing with lots of misconceptions. We hope we see more supervisor oversight and we can say we’re doing this the right way.”
Ferraro said the real security issue is not about planting and growing cannabis; it’s about the cash-based business model. “People don’t come in and steal plants. That’s too much work. It’s not a quick robbery. In my four years of experience, I haven’t had any real issues. I really don’t think there’s a threat. There’s lots of old propaganda. Remember when alcohol was once considered the devil?”
The cultivation ordinance anticipates most projects will employ a mix of outdoor and hoop house operations. Properly screened artificial lighting will be allowed. Security measures required would include motion-sensor security cameras, surveillance video capacity, alarms for safety and theft protection, emergency access, fire safety compliance and a fully locked perimeter. Firearms are not permitted.
All telltale odors associated with marijuana must be contained on the site with filtration, ventilation and siting controls. An odor control plan must be submitted prior to permit approval. Electric power for indoor or greenhouse cultivation must be provided by 100% renewable energy sources. Generators are allowed only during declared emergencies. Equally strict requirements for water use, wastewater management and biotic and wildlife habitat protections are being proposed.