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Sonoma County zoning board approves first large-scale pot farm outside Petaluma

Andrew Beale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A large cannabis-growing farm planned for west of Petaluma got a green light from Sonoma County zoning officials.

Despite vigorous opposition from neighbors, Petaluma Hills Farm’s proposal to cultivate 1 acre of marijuana on a rural property at 334 Purvine Road that used to be a chicken ranch was unanimously approved Thursday night by the county Board of Zoning Adjustments.

It’s the first large cannabis operation county officials have approved since they started taking applications two years ago for such pot operations. The single- acre tract designated for the cannabis farm — the largest allowed by the county — sits on a 37-acre property with other agriculture operations and a single-family home.

Opponents of the pot farm say it will cause a strong odor in a rural community west of Petaluma, and could bring crime and security concerns. Despite the zoning board’s approval, the battle is not over yet. Opponents have 10 days to appeal the board’s decision, which would force county supervisors to make the final ruling on the proposal.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9489518-181/sonoma-county-zoning-board-unanimously

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The wrong way to plan for cannabis cultivation

Ray Krauss and Craig S. Harrison, THE KENWOOD PRESS

On April 16, the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to direct Permit Sonoma to address the severe compatibility problems with cannabis cultivation in rural neighborhoods. Last year the supervisors publicly committed to amending the cannabis ordinance to fix these problems, but ultimately failed to do much.

The supervisors need to acknowledge the fundamental problem. The primary reason there are so many “problem sites” with cannabis cultivation is that they turned the planning process upside down. Even if all problem sites today were denied permits, there will be more applications for new problem sites in the future.

The proper way to proceed is to identify sites that are suitable based on a set of planning criteria, not identify sites where there may be problems. That is how all other planning is done. For example, in preparing the General Plan and Zoning Maps, planners identify those areas where specified uses are environmentally suitable and compatible with surrounding uses. Thus, we end up with identified commercial zones, industrial zones, multi-residential zones (apartments and condos) and residential zones. Those areas not so identified do not allow any of these uses.

Similarly, the county should study its environmental and land use information and identify locations where cannabis grows are suitable based on criteria such as:

• Areas where public water and other necessary public services are available including power, sewer, storm water drainage, etc.

• If not on public water, areas located in a groundwater basin where water use will not impact environmental resources.

• Areas served by adequate and safe road access.

• Areas remote from incompatible residential sites.

• Areas remote from public and private schools.

• Areas remote from public and private parks, children’s camps, trails and other recreation sites.

• Areas easily secured and accessible to law enforcement.

• Areas free of extreme or high danger of wildfire.

• Areas free of landslides, flooding and other natural hazards.

• Areas free of rare and endangered or sensitive plants.

• Areas free of historic and/or archaeological resources.

• Areas free of important wildlife habitat and corridors.

• Areas free of other identified incompatibilities.

Once areas meeting these criteria are identified and mapped, planners would normally do an assessment of how much suitable land can be projected as reasonably necessary to meet current and future demand (20 years for a General Plan).

The proposed suitable areas are then presented to the public in hearings, and after considering all public comment, the planners select those areas where permits for grows will be considered.

Individual proposals are then evaluated to make sure that they indeed meet all of the necessary criteria. They go through the Conditional Use Permit and California Environmental Quality Act processes where the public has an opportunity to provide comment and participate in public hearings.

This is how planning has always been done. The county’s failure to undertake the appropriate planning process is why we have problems with grows in unsuitable areas. The county has never previously done planning for any other land use by asking for the public to identify unsuitable or problem sites. They always do an analysis and pick areas that are most likely to be suitable. The county’s approach is like allowing anyone to locate a junkyard anywhere unless enough neighbors show up after the fact and complain.

These controversies could have been avoided if the county had undertaken the usual, normal planning process that is applied to all other land uses. The proposed Phase II compatibility planning process should follow the normal and appropriate planning process described above.

The supervisors should never have assigned the planning effort to Economic Development instead of Permit Sonoma. Economic Development does not have the experience or expertise to manage the land use planning for cannabis grows.

The county got into its public controversy dilemma because it falsely assumed that cannabis grows are “just agriculture.” That’s like saying pig farms and dairies are “just agriculture.”

Most of the remote places proposed for commercial cannabis cultivation would otherwise only accommodate what is called “extensive agriculture.” Perhaps a few cattle at best. The sites in the Mark West Watershed would not be suitable for vineyards or any other intensive agriculture. Most wouldn’t even support grazing.

Growers use imported soil and heated containers in commercial structures with artificial lighting, none of which is normal agriculture.

Once the county assumed cannabis production is the equivalent of a vegetable garden (or a potato patch, as one county official opined) and ignored the accompanying huge water use, fire hazards, multiple employees, traffic generation, pesticide use, noxious odors, crime, and a plethora of other impacts that of necessity accompany cannabis production, the planning process went awry.

To address adequately the compatibility problems with rural neighborhoods, the supervisors need to acknowledge the impacts and quit trying to fit the round cannabis peg in the square “just agriculture” hole.

Ray Krauss is a retired environmental planner who lives in the Mark West Watershed.

Craig S. Harrison is a retired lawyer who lives in Bennett Valley.

Source: http://www.kenwoodpress.com/pub/a/10428?full=1

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Cannabis and the environment

Heather Bailey, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

In an industry that wants to be seen as green, what are the real impacts? The answer is, no one knows for sure.

When you hear anti-cannabis groups complain about the impacts of legal cultivation, one concern that is often expressed is the impact on natural resources and the environment caused by growing cannabis. But how significant are those impacts, and what do they consist of? The answer is, it’s hard to say.

The research on impacts is limited and has been done almost exclusively on illegal grows. The fact they were illegal limited funding for research, limited what grows could be studied and creates significant questions as to whether the research findings can be predictive of the impacts from legal operations.

Sonoma County cannabis ordinances for legal cultivation have a strong environmental protection component, including pages of regulations about water and watersheds alone.

But are they enough? Research into environmental impacts of legal operations are in their infancy, so it may take time and research to determine best practices.

Read more at http://www.sonomawest.com/cannabis-and-the-environment/article_e1566fb4-a249-11e8-b62e-bfe48d93d62c.html

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Sonoma County endorses limits on cannabis production, curbs on neighbors’ protests

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday advanced revisions to rules governing cannabis businesses and farms outside city limits that would include allowing recreational sales at dispensaries and limiting most cultivation sites to properties 10 acres or larger.

The Board of Supervisors rejected two proposals aimed at addressing an increasingly contentious debate over where outdoor growing should occur in Sonoma County. One would have allowed neighborhood groups to lobby supervisors to ban cultivation in their areas on a case-by-case basis. The other would have enabled cultivators to appeal to the board to allow cultivation in an area where it’s currently prohibited.

Instead, the board opted to balance the interests of the two competing interests — marijuana farmers and anti-pot neighborhood groups — by signaling support for a more thorough permitting process for smaller pot farms, which are more likely to prompt concerns from neighbors than larger ones, according to county officials.

“I’m hopeful we can come to a broad consensus,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “Having this (the rules) keep changing is really hard for (cannabis) operators and is really hard for neighbors who have no idea what the hell is going to happen. We need to expedite the permitting process to provide answers.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8611268-181/sonoma-county-endorses-limits-on

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Op-Ed: Keep commercial marijuana away from our parks

Deborah A. Eppstein and Craig S. Harrison, KENWOOD PRESS

We are shocked by proposed changes to the Cannabis Ordinance that would reduce buffer zones around parks to allow commercial marijuana cultivation on park borders. We think the current 1,000-foot setback from parks to neighboring parcel boundaries should be increased to 2,000 feet. Instead, on Aug. 7, the Board of Supervisors may decide to measure setbacks from the site of the grow instead of the parcel boundary, acquiescing to heavy lobbying by big growers. This would undermine the protection of our parks.

Why is the county rushing to authorize marijuana cultivation next to our parks and homes? It should employ the precautionary principle, as for any new business model. If transition from illegal to legal grows proceeds smoothly, the county can then reconsider modifications on where grows are permitted, based on real-life experience of what works and doesn’t for the community. Instead, the prevailing mood seems to be speed and greed.

Sonoma County is blessed with parks. Hood Mountain Regional Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Jack London State Park, Trione-Annadel State Park, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, and Taylor Mountain Regional Park are treasures. Why endanger them?

Robust buffer zones improve fire protection, facilitate finding illegal grows, and maintain the parks’ undeveloped nature with a transition zone. Allowing commercial grows to operate close by undermines enforcement and the safety of park visitors, who might encounter violence both from illegal grows masquerading as legal ones or legal grows near park boundaries. In rugged areas, it is common for hikers to wander beyond park boundaries. On Cougar Lane, which abuts Hood Mountain, growers often patrol their land with firearms and attack dogs. This intimidates neighbors and potentially hikers in the park.

Read more at http://www.kenwoodpress.com/pub/s/guested

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Sonoma County cannabis advisory group begins setting agenda

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

Sonoma County’s rules for how and where cannabis businesses can operate were codified earlier this year, but the book on local marijuana regulations is far from finished.
Helping the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors adjust its local rules is the main job of a 20-person citizen advisory group chosen from cannabis industry players and other interest groups including real estate, agriculture, public health and neighborhoods.
The panel met for the first time Wednesday to start setting an agenda for issues and recommendations to bring before the board.
Read more at: Sonoma County cannabis advisory group begins setting agenda | The Press Democrat

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Challenges loom after passage of Sonoma County cannabis tax

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Setting fair and stable tax rates and assisting about 2,000 displaced marijuana growers were among the issues facing Sonoma County a day after voters approved a cannabis business tax that will initially raise more than $6 million to cover the costs of regulating the newly legal pot industry.
A whopping 72 percent of voters approved Measure A on Tuesday, allowing the county to collect up to 10 percent of the revenues from marijuana growers and other businesses, including dispensaries and manufacturers of an increasing array of cannabis-based products.
The local vote followed California’s passage of Proposition 64, legalizing adult use of marijuana in November, and the Board of Supervisors’ adoption a month later of zoning rules that allow commercial pot cultivation on agricultural and industrial land outside the county’s nine cities.
But the critical details of cannabis regulation have yet to be determined as the county enters what Board Chairwoman Shirlee Zane on Wednesday called “uncharted territory.”
Read more at: Challenges loom after passage of Sonoma County cannabis tax | The Press Democrat

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Sonoma County supervisors ban rural pot cultivation

Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Siding with rural residents opposed to cannabis cultivation in their neighborhoods, Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday rejected a proposal to allow small-scale growers to farm marijuana in any rural residential zones outside city limits.
Supervisors Shirlee Zane, David Rabbitt and James Gore voiced strong support for an outright ban, opposing a county Planning Commission recommendation to allow cottage-sized cultivation on rural residential lots of 2 acres in size or more.
The three were forceful in their opposition, with Rabbitt and Gore saying they believe marijuana farms are not an appropriate land use, and Zane adding she’s most worried about crime associated with the industry.
“There’s a lot of violence with home invasions. … I think the crime element has not been discussed enough,” Zane said. “People who live in rural residential (areas) have a right to live in a safe community.”
The board, instead, voted to approve a broader, far-reaching land-use ordinance regulating marijuana cultivation, both indoors and outdoors, on agricultural and industrial zones across the county. Implementation is tied largely to the success of a marijuana cultivation tax set for a March 7 special election, or finding an alternative funding source.
Zane’s comments followed earlier testimony Tuesday from county law enforcement officials, who said crimes associated with marijuana cultivation and trimming appear to be growing in both number and severity.
Read more at: Sonoma County supervisors ban rural pot cultivation | The Press Democrat