Four sessions scheduled for March 8 and 12

The latest — and possibly greatest — Sonoma County land use battle is about to reengage when public hearings begin next week over the county’s proposed updates to its Commercial Cannabis Cultivation ordinance. Weary would-be neighbors of new pot farms have been circling for weeks in neighborhood opposition groups. Representatives of the emerging cannabis industry have aligned lobbyist and legal help. And, county government staff and elected supervisors have watched their phone lines and social media light up as they prepare to move forward with a major revise to their 2018 ordinance.

The new proposed ordinance would significantly streamline the cultivation permit process, moving permitting authority to the Agricultural Commissioner’s office away from the county’s planning department, Permit Sonoma. It would remove the requirement for individual pot projects to be subject to public zoning and permissible use permit hearings. Growers would have to adhere to minimum setbacks from property lines and neighboring structures. Regulations on water use, energy sources, habitat protection, odor controls and minimum lot sizes are all changed from the previous 2018 ordinance.

There’s a broad and noisy consensus among potential cannabis ordinance combatants that the current working draft document will undergo many major text changes before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors take any official votes on it much later in the year.

The county has announced a series of four virtual town halls on March 8 and 12. The proposed ordinance changes were released Jan. 31 by the county’s ad hoc committee staff. The draft and supporting documents are available at

“This represents, maybe, our fourth update since 2016,” said 4th District Supervisor James Gore. “What I hope to hear is what I call the ground truth and not just the activist voices on both sides. Cannabis is here. Our goal is to determine the right places and the wrong places to allow it.”

Gore recalled the last stormy pot debates when 500 people overflowed the county administration center’s meeting room. Half of the audience wore red and an equal number of the public wore green. Gore called it the “devil’s weed versus the end-all, be-all pot proponents.”

Along with the streamlined “ministerial” permitting process, the county is proposing a General Plan amendment that would recognize cannabis as an agricultural crop consistent with state law. Treating cannabis like other crops such as grapes or apples is what has many would-be pot neighbors most up in arms.

“How is a crop that requires 24/7 security just like any other crop,” asked west county resident Jim Krawetz. “It’s not.”

The new ordinance proposes grow operations be set back 100 feet from property lines and 300 feet from neighboring structures. Critics of the proposal want a minimum of 1,000 to 1,500 feet setbacks to better control odors, noise, artificial lights and safety perimeters. The proposed ordinance sets a minimum lot size of 10 acres and the property must be zoned agricultural or rural resource. It does require the larger setbacks around schools, public trails and other sensitive properties.

“Getting the standards right is the key,” said Gore.  “I don’t know what the right setbacks need to be. We need to base this ministerial approach on standards that match best management practices.” The previous ordinance that required project-level hearings and CEQA-like conditional use analysis was not working. “It only clogged up the system. Some applicants have been waiting three to five years, only to then face planning hearing appeals, supervisor appeals and court cases.”

Sonoma County is not the only cannabis battleground in California these days. This week, the Napa County Board of Supervisors heard opposition to allowing any commercial cannabis cultivation from the Napa Valley Farm Bureau and from the Visit Napa Valley, a tourism nonprofit. Linsey Gallaghe, Visit Napa Valley CEO, told the supervisors, “We can look to Sonoma County for multiple examples of what can go wrong.” She cited unwelcome cannabis terpene odors and construction of industry-looking hoop houses on previous open land. The Farm Bureau board of directors said any introduction of commercial cannabis operations would “pose too large a danger to other agriculture operations.”

A much bigger — and almost violent  — community conflict over the proliferation of commercial cannabis operations is raging in Santa Barbara County, where portions of the Central Coast wine country are being invaded by large cannabis greenhouse and hoop house operations. The allowed proliferation of commercial cannabis operations was the subject last year of a scathing condemnation by the Santa Barbara Grand Jury.

What Sonoma County’s future ag and rural hillsides and valley will look like starts with next week’s virtual town halls. 

“We are trying to participate in this public process,” said rural Healdsburg resident Judith Olney, but she claimed county officials were granting unequal access to working staff while extra meetings were being held with cannabis industry representatives. “We think they’re playing games and are not doing their homework.”

Ron Ferraro, owner of Elyon Cannabis, previously endorsed most of the proposed revisions to the 2018 ordinance. He said the streamlined permit process and more objective permitted use requirements are necessary for Sonoma County cultivators to begin to compete with other regions now fast-tracking legal cannabis operations.

Next week’s town hall sessions will likely include very detailed arguments about workable setbacks, odor control and impacts to local groundwater supplies and rural wells. Robert Nissenbaum who lives west of Sebastopol with a pot farmer neighbor said his number one concern is “water use. It’s also my number two, number three and number four concern.” He cited a study conducted for Napa County that found that an acre crop of cannabis consumes 1.1 million gallons of water that is 7 to 10 times more water use than a grape vineyard requires. “You can grow multiple crops a year on the same acre, so the true water consumption could be 3.3 million gallons per acre.”

Robert Guthrie lives a few miles away from Nissenbaum and next door to another cannabis operation. He said his two wells have gone dry in recent months and he blames the pot farm. The 20-acre property is encircled by a dozen small parcels with threatened wells, Guthrie said.

“The small (100 ft. and 300 ft.) setbacks won’t work,” said Guthrie. “The odor is absolutely atrocious and it does not go away easily,” He said he hosted west county supervisor Lynda Hopkins last year for a smell test and he also has had his odor troubles documented by Permit Sonoma staff, including director Tennis Wick.

“I don’t know how you can control the odor but I think if these setbacks are allowed, people will start moving away from Sonoma County. Who wants to have their property impacted like this,” said Guthrie. “I’m not trying to make this (cannabis) illegal, I just want to be able to live respectably in my own house.” Nissenbaum also said he was not “anti-cannabis. We just need sensible, enforceable laws.”

The Santa Barbara pot battle offers evidence of what Sonoma County may want to avoid and try to get right. Some wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley have ceased outdoor wine tastings due to wafting pot odors from new neighboring pot hoop house installations.

“We don’t think this is a crop,” said Olney. “It is more like manufacturing than farming.”

The previous 2018 ordinance emphasized protecting against negative impacts on small rural neighborhoods and compatibility and cumulative impacts. Olney and others quoted original statements made in 2018 by individual supervisors that “neighborhood compatibility” was their top priority.

“We are not hearing that now,” said Olney about the supervisors. Indeed, the new proposals do not measure or seek to regulate impacts from multiple cannabis operations in the same vicinity. With the removal of public hearings, the ministerial process would rely on complaint-driven enforcement, rather than a pre-approval impact analysis and public input.

“We need to acknowledge what is already here and get the black market opened and put in appropriate places. Let’s face it; cannabis is not going to overtake our winegrape crop and industry. It (commercial cannabis) will just be another ag crop. Sonoma County is not going to be the cannabis capital of California, but it won’t be a barren wasteland either,” said Gore.

(1) comment

Mary Rusty Gate Farm

I appreciate this thoughtful article and encourage residents to attend one of the public sessions to voice your concerns. As a rural small family farmer (that moved here from Napa County wine country) I am extremely concerned about what the current draft cannabis ordinance would do to water availability as we experience more and more drought years from climate change. In addition we already are faced with a complaint-driven enforcement of big winery operations that the county enforcement and Sheriff's Department do not address in a timely manner. If county cannot guarantee additional staff to deal with enforcement issues that problematically located cannabis commercial are going to create than permits should not be allowed close to existing housing and schools.

(Edited by staff.)

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