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Sonoma County voters still wary of cannabis farms


The couple, who are members of a coalition of neighbors concerned about cannabis oversight, say other residents have turned to them over the years seeking help with setback troubles, noise, security concerns and odor from nearby cannabis farms.

The county’s process for permitting and zoning cannabis farms has long been a challenge for Sonoma County leaders.

Prospective commercial growers must get a license from the state and apply for a permit through the county’s permitting department, Permit Sonoma. The county offers ministerial and conditional use permits depending on several factors including the size and type of grow.

Applicants pursuing a conditional use permit have to go before the Board of Zoning Adjustments for approval. The permitting process can also require applicants to provide environmental reports and participate in a public hearing.

Farmers navigating the process say it takes too long and is pricing out small farmers who cannot keep up with the fees and various studies required to pursue a permit.

Wall, who is also a board member for the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, said the county was initially poised to be a destination for cannabis. However, many farmers have now moved to other places, such as Lake County.

“They’re really not here anymore,” Wall said of small cannabis farmers. “It’s sad and they’re not contributing cash. Those were dollars that were flowing through the economy.”

Survey respondent Keith Schroeder, 73, said he shares the same concern.

“I also worry on another level both with the wine industry and what appears to be happening with marijuana is large corporate types are economically forcing out small growers,” said Schroeder, who lives just west of Sebastopol.

Complaints about the process prompted the county to consider a controversial measure intended to ease the permitting process. The proposed easing of regulations prompted outcry from rural residents opposed to more areas of the county opening up to larger pot farms.

“The thing that’s always been my feeling, cannabis is legal in the state, it should be grown here and that’s OK,” Richardson said. “But there are appropriate places for it to grow.”

In May, the Board of Supervisors voted down the measure and instead called for an environmental review that will take at least one year.

On the subject of easing regulations, voters who participated in the survey were fairly split — 45% said they would support easing regulations while 41% said they were opposed.

Remy Fuentes, 27, a lifelong Sonoma County resident who participated in The Press Democrat’s survey, supports the county’s efforts to reevaluate its process.

“I think that it doesn’t hurt to always be reviewing things, especially if it’s related to the water issue,” Fuentes said.

Water use also worries Schroeder, who added the permitting process should be sped up to cut down on the number or unauthorized cannabis farms.

Schroeder also said he was wary of treating cannabis differently and said the county should treat it like grapes, which produce a similar “end product.”

Attempting to reset its program, the county has started with “visioning sessions.” The sessions, which were held last week, were designed to gather public input on a variety of issues related to cannabis including safety and water use.

The aim is to use that input to help define the scope of the environmental impact report, according to Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

“It’s important to listen to all of this anew,” she said.

A timeline for the county’s review process estimates that a new ordinance will come before county boards in 2024. The county plans to protect farmers already in the permitting pipeline, but Wall worries about the impact of any changes under the new ordinance.

Wall and her husband plan to begin working on a greenhouse — an expensive project that includes odor control.

“Supervisors have said they would like to protect the farmers in the pipeline, those like myself and other farmers waiting for years, so I’m hoping that they’re genuine,” Wall said. “We want to feel comfortable in what we’ve already been told we’re allowed to do.”

Asked where cannabis should grow, 40% said it should grow outside in agricultural areas only; 21% of voters said it should grow anywhere outside; 17% said it should only grow in warehouses; and 9% said cultivation should be prohibited.

In 2018, 36% said it should grow only in agricultural areas, 23% said it should grow only in warehouses, 22% said it should grow anywhere outside and 12% said cultivation should be prohibited.

Many of those polled also support a cannabis farm permit process similar to what the county uses today that required applicants to participate in a public hearing and go before the planning commission for approval.

Surveyed on the cannabis farm permitting process, the bulk of respondents said cannabis farm applicants should go before the either the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors.

Currently, applications go before the Board of Zoning Adjustments and appeals go before the Board of Supervisors.

Fuentes said her main concerns are cultivators’ water use and dispensaries’ overzealous marketing.

“It’s not like a save all for every condition, and a lot of the dispensaries promote that for every lifestyle,” Fuentes said.

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



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