The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors Tuesday night decided it is not yet ready to set any limits on where and how marijuana can be grown.
County staff had proposed a temporary urgency ordinance that would have set zoning standards until a permanent regulation is established in six months to a year. Among other things, that urgency measure would have limited marijuana production to farms that were already in operation before Feb. 16. It also would have banned commercial cultivation in single-family residential areas.
Supervisors Chris Wright and Debbie Ponte urged their colleagues to support the urgency ordinance, arguing that the board has an obligation to slow the rush of land buyers fleeing other jurisdictions where bans are in place.
“We keep kicking the (expletive) can down the road,” Ponte said, noting that the board had also rejected an opportunity to regulate marijuana farming a year ago. “Nobody knows what to do. If we kick this down the road again, maybe we should all be recalled.”
But the measure failed on a 2-3 vote, with Supervisors Cliff Edson, Steve Kearney and Michael Oliveira opposed.
The vote means that Calaveras County’s marijuana industry for now will continue its unregulated growth, which county officials say has triggered a land rush by potential growers.
Kearney said that he objected to being asked to consider an urgency measure given that the board on Feb. 16 had directed staff to prepare a permanent system to regulate marijuana farms. “We sent it to the planning commission and it has not come back to us yet,” he said.
Kearney said he was “deeply concerned” to hear Capt. Jim Macedo, the acting leader of the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department, and District Attorney Barbara Yook say that they fear the marijuana regulations will greatly increase their costs. Both Macedo and Yook said they would rather see marijuana cultivation banned.
Macedo said that as long as marijuana cultivation is permitted, it will be difficult for law enforcement officers to determine which sites are legal and which can be removed. He said a ban would make such decisions more “black and white” and allow officers to “move much more quickly.”
Oliveira said he now thinks that maybe he would rather ban cultivation completely. He noted that anti-marijuana activists recently posted a notice that they hope to circulate petitions to put a ban on marijuana cultivation on the ballot.
Oliveira said he wants to “put it before the voters. I think the public should be part of this decision.”
Edson, for his part, said he had been leaning toward regulating marijuana farms until the past weekend, when he visited residents in the Butte Fire burn scar who are surrounded by marijuana growers and feel terrified because those growers employ pit bulls and brandish firearms.
“We don’t have any protection for the current property owners in this ordinance,” Edson said.
David Bowman of Murphys was one of the first to speak during the public comments on the proposed ordinance. He urged supervisors to adopt a “complete ban” rather than regulating the crop.
County staff members had recommended the urgency ordinance as a temporary measure due to a rush of land purchase by people planning to establish marijuana farms. They said that people are coming here because other jurisdictions have banned cultivation and Calaveras County has signaled that it intends to set up a regulatory framework that follows state law.
But staff members determined that in order to adopt a permanent ordinance that is legally defensible, it will first be necessary to draft an environmental impact report that considers the possible impacts on the environment. That will take six months to a year, which means the land rush and establishment of new farms can continue at least that long.
“I think something needs to be done,” Planning Director Peter Maurer urged when it appeared clear that the board did not have the necessary four members willing to approve an urgency ordinance.
Some in the marijuana industry are disappointed by the decision because it continues to encourage rogue growers who don’t follow rules while failing to support those growers who do want to comply with county regulations.
“Unfortunately, the county chose to do nothing,” said Caslin Tomaszewski, director of the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance industry group.
Tomaszewski said in a telephone interview Wednesday that his group is now focused on the process still in the works to craft a permanent zoning code for marijuana farms, processing and distribution.
Sarah Hodson, a grower in the Mountain Ranch area, said the lack of a clear ordinance establishing parameters for legal cannabis farming leaves her uncertain how to invest money into her business.
“Now I am stuck in limbo, continuously,” she said.
The state laws governing the marijuana industry are being phased in gradually between now and 2018. Growers who comply fully with local county or city laws, and have documentation to prove it, go to the front of the line when the state government starts issuing licenses. And the state grants priority to those growers who can show they’ve been in compliance the longest.
“The longer we go without a way to show local compliance, the less priority consideration we will be awarded,” Tomaszewski said.
Maurer said it might be possible to finish the permanent ordinance in as little as six months. Tomaszewski thinks that is unlikely.
“Our county is still reeling from a wildfire,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like the type of time to be betting on a speedy process for this.”
Many people who identified themselves as growers stated during Tuesday’s hearing on the proposed urgency ordinance that they are already investing hundreds of thousands of dollars each buying properties and building farms with irrigation systems. Even though the county is not yet regulating marijuana gardens, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board is, and growers in some cases reported spending as much as $11,000 per farm just to complete required studies.
Trey Sherrell, an environmental scientist with the Marijuana Cultivation and Regulation section of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, reported that his agency has already used satellite imagery to make a map showing the 1,370 grow sites in the Feather River watershed and plans soon to also map the sites in the Mokelumne, Calaveras and Stanislaus rivers watersheds that are in Calaveras County.
The agency uses those maps to find growers, contact them and bring them into compliance with water pollution laws.
“We want to identify the sites that are on the steepest terrain,” Sherrell said. Steep sites, he said, pose the greatest water pollution risk and require the most intensive preventive measures.
Sherrell said it is better when growers planning farms contact his agency before they build a farm.
“They should be assessed before site development,” he said.