Supervisors to consider pause on cannabis cultivation permit

In its latest bid to untangle Sonoma County’s troubled cannabis regulations, the Board of Supervisors will consider temporarily banning a type of permit intended for small-scale farmers.

The move, which would close a loophole that critics say is being abused, is being hotly contested by growers in the industry.

Tensions have been mounting for years between farmers and neighbors over safety, water use, smell and other impacts on neighborhoods. Neighbors say the county’s regulations are too loose, but farmers say the county’s lengthy permitting process and high fees are a burden for farmers struggling to get a foothold in the local industry.

In May the county agreed to study the industry impact in an lengthy environmental report that is likely to take at least a year to complete.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will take another step in its effort to curb complaints when it considers a 45-day moratorium that, if passed, would stop the county’s agriculture department from issuing multi-tenant permits, which allow farmers to share land.

Multi-tenant permits have been available in the county since 2016, when California voters supported legalizing recreational marijuana.

The aim was to help small-scale farmers access land, according to county staff and officials.

Critics say, however, that the multi-tenant pathway creates a loophole allowing cultivators to get around stringent requirements for grows over 10,000 square feet by acquiring permits for adjacent smaller plots, which individually are not scrutinized as closely.

“Staff found that the current ordinance doesn’t really effectively distinguish between true multi-tenant operations,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins.

Multi-tenant permits fall under the county agriculture department. They are considered to be “ministerial” permits, which require much less stringent review before approval.

Larger grows require a conditional-use permit from the the county’s planning and building department, and entail a much more rigorous review process that can require environmental impact studies, cultural studies and public hearings.

“That’s the key thing here, because it’s ministerial you obviously don’t have discretion,” said Bradley Dunn, policy manager for the county’s planning and building department. “There are ministerial standards, but there are some instances where there are some things that might not be studied through a ministerial review.”

The county has issued 85 ministerial zoning permits for 20 different multi-tenant sites, said Dunn. There are 61 ministerial permit applications in process.

If the moratorium is approved Tuesday, farmers with an active permit set to expire during the 45-day pause will get an extension, but new applicants will have to pursue a conditional use permit instead, county staff said.

News of the proposed moratorium prompted cannabis farmers and their employees to protest outside the Board of Supervisors’ office two weeks ago.

For many the moratorium was the tipping point, as the county keeps “moving the goal post” on cannabis farmers, according to David Drips, a co-owner of cannabis farm Petaluma Hill Farms and co-organizer of the protest.

Hopkins said she understands the frustrations of small farmers but the threat of legal actions from community members and the county’s commitment to a new impact study make consideration of such moratoriums important.

“I don’t think that is going to get us where we need to go, if we wind up litigating this,” Hopkins said. “We have an opportunity to take a break. Existing operations would be able to continue.”

After the 45-day hiatus, which would end Oct. 26, county staff would make recommendations to the supervisors regarding policy options and potentially extend the moratorium.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

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