Sonoma County has a long history with marijuana and cannabis, much of it being half-hidden from public view and cloaked in outlaw fables and underground commerce. Most of that is now changing as county officials, certified growers and concerned citizens haggle over land use and safety rules to define where — and where not — commercial cannabis cultivation and related activities should be allowed. Final decisions will not only determine where the crop will be allowed, but will also define who will be the prominent face of our newest multibillion dollar ag enterprise. Will Sonoma County retain its pot legacy of smaller cottage industry growers or will it be dominated by large corporate enterprises, descending here atop a promised/threatened Green Rush?
Rest assured, Sonoma County will have an ongoing and omnipresent cannabis future. But, right now, what that future will look like is very much up in the air. All five members of our county’s board of supervisors are in agreement on this point, even as they convene final public hearings on an updated commercial cultivation ordinance this week. Threatened by an environmentally-based lawsuit, those updates and final definitions of our cannabis future are likely to be a year or longer away from being resolved.
California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Prop. 215) allowing the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries. We approved Prop. 64 (Adult Use of Marijuana Act) in 2016, supporting recreational use of cannabis. Six out of 10 Sonoma County voters supported the legalization. Sonoma County obviously wants a cannabis future but, to date, there has not been a constructive conversation over what that future should look like.
This last year of county planning staff reviews, ad hoc committee sessions and disjointed remote video public hearings has divined clear — and sometimes bitter — differences between rural neighbors and cannabis cultivators over where, and where not, to allow cultivation. Compromises continue to look out of reach.
After creating land use and permitting rules for cannabis cultivation in 2018, the county supervisors set out last year to update their rules to streamline the permitting process while clarifying its set of stringent environmental and natural resource use standards. The supervisors also pledged to protect the safety and “rural character” of the county’s multitude of semi-rural neighborhoods. Based on the testimony by hundreds of people on both sides of this pot debate during hearings this year, the only certainty about our cannabis future is we’re headed to the courts.
The county sought to adopt zoning amendments to expand cannabis cultivation permitting and establish a streamlined “ministerial” application processes to eliminate the current years-long hearing process for growers. A 10-acre minimum parcel size has been set where only one acre or 10% of a total property can be planted in ag-zoned lands only. Cultivation activities would have to be within minimum setbacks from property lines and neighboring structures. Marginal and low groundwater zones would be disallowed but potential cultivators could still apply for exemptions when meeting the strict environmental, safety and resource use rules.
The county’s planning commission, on a narrow 3-2 vote in April, ruled against defining cannabis as an agricultural crop or activity in the same class as grapes, apples or other commercial crops.
A public hearing was set this week on the planning commission and planning staff recommendations but was narrowed by the county’s receipt of a land use (CEQA) litigation, filed by concerned rural neighborhood groups, contesting a Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration (SMND.) The SMND found that “the proposed ordinance amendments and general plan amendment as mitigated will not have a significant effect upon the environment.” It is looking obvious today that not even the five county supervisors continue to believe this statement and the final picture of our cannabis future is now being put in the hands of combating attorneys.
If we accept the definition of a “compromise” as being where all parties are equally dissatisfied, then we are there. There are better ways to define a future.