A court motion requesting a preliminary injunction that would have temporarily restricted the county from validating commercial permits or granting approval for commercial cannabis operations was denied on Feb. 14 by Calaveras County Superior Court Judge David Sanders.
In November, a lawsuit was filed against the county over its commercial cannabis cultivation ordinance by Calaveras Residents Against Commercial Marijuana (CRACM), a group of residents concerned with the potential environmental impacts of cultivation activities.
The ordinance, which was adopted in October, was accompanied by an addendum to an environmental impact report (EIR) the county had formerly prepared for new regulations following the Urgency Ordinance’s expiration in 2017. Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, an environmental law firm representing CRACM, allege that the addendum was approved unlawfully, as it failed to address new impacts not accounted for in the original EIR.
It was standing room only, with advocates on both sides of the county’s cannabis policy spectrum turning out for the hearing.
“Irreparable environmental harm will occur without an injunction,” said Kevin Bundy, an attorney representing CRACM.
The ordinance increases outdoor cultivation limits from half an acre to one acre and permits co-location of multiple sites on one parcel. That means potential for larger growing operations, and consequently, contamination of waterways and wildlife from pesticide application; and increased traffic and odors, Bundy told Sanders. Bundy also highlighted clearance of trees and vegetation as a concern. When a landowner removes a 50-year-old oak tree, for instance, requirements to replace it with three seedlings are insufficient to protect wildlife that relied on the original tree, Bundy argued.
Additionally, an injunction would delay implementation of the regulatory program by “a few months at most,” and wouldn’t have the economic impact on the county that county staff laid out in declarations filed with the court, Bundy said.
Declarations from County Administrative Officer Al Alt and Tax Collector Barbara Sullivan claimed, respectively, that the program will create 2,880 jobs for the county, and “millions of dollars” in tax revenues would be lost if implementation were to be halted.
“These growers are dependent on this for their livelihood,” said Christopher Stiles, an attorney with Remy Moose Manley, LLP, a legal firm out of Sacramento representing the county.
Stiles argued that an addendum to the EIR is more than satisfactory for addressing the impacts of cultivation, since the new ordinance decreased the number of applicants significantly, restricted zoning away from rural residential neighborhoods, and increased minimum parcel size to 20 acres, among other measures.
He added that strict measures for groundwater testing and pesticide application would also limit environmental impacts.
Sanders ultimately found that a preliminary injunction was not warranted, and there would be more harm if it were issued, since the county would lose a year of tax revenues by barring legal cultivation for the 2020 grow season.
Only in the most “egregious” situations should an injunction be granted, and “that just does not exist here,” Sanders said.
“The harm to the county would’ve been huge if they shut down a whole ’nother season, and I don’t think that they’re gonna win on the merits,” Prapanna Smith, a current cultivation applicant told the Enterprise after the hearing. The county’s development of the ordinance was “done in public. We all watched it. We all commented on it … The court says they followed the law. It’s all valid, and I think they made the right decision.”
Also in attendance, Bill McManus, an outspoken opponent of commercial cannabis in Calaveras County, but not an active plaintiff in the case, said he was disappointed with the ruling, but not surprised.
“I think the judge minimized what the potential impact might be, because … some of these environmental issues, once the damage is done, it lasts a long time,” McManus told the Enterprise. “I give these people (CRACM) credit, because they have put their lives, their money, their hopes into something that probably doesn’t affect too many of them. They’re concerned about the people of Calaveras County. Where I live, I didn’t have a problem with marijuana. But I heard so many stories that would bring tears to your eyes about what it did in the community, especially after the Butte Fire. That’s why you do it, for the people that don’t go to board of supervisors meetings, they don’t call their supervisors.”