Sonoma County supervisors pause cannabis permits over flawed system


A permitting pathway intended to help small cannabis farmers is on hold after county staff tasked with overseeing permitting for the industry acknowledged serious flaws in the system.

The acknowledgment, which came during Tuesday’s Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting, is the latest evolution of the county’s struggle to address problems in its cannabis policy.

A lack of clarity around aspects of policy has led to mounting tensions between farmers and neighbors over safety, water use and other neighborhood impacts. The county has agreed to study those impacts in an lengthy environmental report advanced by supervisors in May that likely will take at least a year to complete.

Discussed Tuesday, the multi-tenant permit is a unique element of Sonoma County’s cannabis ordinance that allows cannabis farmers with grows up to 10,000 square feet to share land.

It was established to help small farmers join the industry, but on Tuesday county staff were clear — the multi-tenant permitting pathway is flawed.

The 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.

Though they didn’t specify which businesses were taking advantage of the loophole, county officials and staff believe there are some cultivators gaming the system.

In a unanimous but somewhat reluctant decision, supervisors Tuesday approved a moratorium on multi-tenant permitting for 45 days.

“I’m disappointed to hear myself say I think I’m going to support the very short-term moratorium to figure out the best way moving forward,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said.

Under the multi-tenant system the county’s Department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures, which issues the multi-tenant permits, does not have the resources to determine whether multi-tenant applicants are truly separate businesses sharing land, Andrew Smith, the county’s agricultural commissioner, said Tuesday.

As a result a business can apply for multiple adjacent multi-tenant permits under different LLCs and circumnavigate the more stringent permitting process intended for grows larger than 10,000 square feet. That process includes in-depth environmental impact studies.

“It’s not clear there would be a good ministerial way to determine who is truly multi-tenant and who isn’t,” said Sita Kuteira, deputy county counsel.

Adding to the pressure facing the county is the threat of legal action from neighbors who have hired attorneys to challenge the multi-tenant permits.

If the multi-tenant pathway is allowed to continue, neighbors could challenged those permits in court, Kuteira said.

The moratorium throws small farmers with multi-tenant permits into limbo.

Those 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. That permitting process is more stringent and has taken many farmers years to get through.

“It was an absolute nightmare; I’m not going to do it for a 10K,” local farmer Lisa Lia said Tuesday of the conditional use permit process.

Lia explained she had pursued a multi-tenant permit on a friend’s land after her farm burned down.

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

The cost of pursuing a conditional use permit ranges from $15,000 to $30,000 according to Scott Orr, deputy director of the county’s planning division.

Local farmers have long said the county’s conditional use permitting process is burdensome because of its high cost and slow process, but neighbors say that shouldn’t outweigh the money they have invested in their homes which are now impacted by nearby cannabis grows.

“Let’s also consider the person who’s invested their life savings in their home and is now stuck with a constant irritant,” Bloomfield resident Veva Edelson said in an interview Wednesday.

Edelson, who has lived in Bloomfield for the past seven years and loves her home for its tight community and peacefulness, lives by a former dairy farm now slated for a multi-tenant cannabis grow. She worries about the grow’s impact on the neighborhood.

Pushing for provisions including setback requirements, exclusion zones and scientific impact studies, Edelson and others have blamed the current disputes over cannabis farm locations on the county’s failure to conduct a thorough impact study. It is a point Supervisor David Rabbitt conceded Tuesday.

“It’s really about the selection of the site and that is on us because we still have not identified properties,” Rabbitt said.

Though the board unanimously approved the moratorium, the supervisors each expressed concern about exacerbating the burden on small farmers.

County staff recommended eliminating the multi-tenant permit altogether and having Permit Sonoma absorb the responsibility of issuing conditional use permits for those farmers instead, but supervisors Chris Coursey, James Gore and board chair Lynda Hopkins were wary.

“I want to prevent people who are not playing fair and square, but I also don’t want to penalize people who are,” Coursey said.

Orr acknowledged that assigning that responsibility to Permit Sonoma would create a significant increase in work for a department already struggling with a yearslong vetting process.

David Drips, a co-owner of cannabis grower Petaluma Hill Farms, found the board’s questions regarding the impact to farmers reassuring.

After years of feeling as though the county was listening to industry consultants and lawyers over farmers, Drips said Tuesday’s discussion offered hope that the supervisors were finally coming around.

“I think maybe they’re actually starting to wake up and see the plight of the cannabis industry and the small family farmer,” Drips said.

Getting county staff to do the same, remains a challenge said Drips.

He added that the county should focus on going after the large businesses taking advantage of the loophole.

County staff will return before the board on Oct. 26 when the moratorium ends, to discuss long-term options for the multi-tenant permit.

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



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