After holding multiple study sessions and public hearings dating back to April, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday legalized commercial cannabis cultivation for approximately 190 formerly registered growers (based on staff estimations) that were in good standing with the county’s regulatory program under the 2016 Urgency Ordinance.
The board had two ordinances and their associated fee studies to approve, one for cultivation regulations (commercial and non-commercial), and the other establishing background check requirements for prospective cannabis business owners and their employees.
Also on the agenda was an item to allow the newly formed Calaveras County Division of Cannabis Control to access state and federal level summaries of criminal history information for the issuance and monitoring of Cannabis Background Clearance Badges (CBCBs).
The cannabis department was established as a location to facilitate background checks and process applications, and its staff will help inspect grow sites, according to past discussions.
In public comment, multiple medicinal cannabis users protested that the personal use limit of six plants per year allowed under the ordinance is too low.
Ban proponents reiterated that the addendum to the county’s environmental impact report (EIR) for the program does not address foreseeable impacts of cannabis cultivation on water, among other natural resources, and that the county’s General Plan update must be completed before the regulations.
The cannabis cultivation ordinance passed on a 3-2 vote, with District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli and District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills opposed.
“To say that we have done our best to craft an ordinance knowing full well what Sonoma County has put together, I’m really questioning the validity of the effort here … There (are) ways to find compromise, but we’re right now hell-bent on creating something good, bad or ugly, and I can’t go along with it,” Mills said.
According to Mills, Sonoma County has more stringent requirements pertaining to odor avoidance, renewable energy and erosion and sediment control, among other mitigation measures, that the county should’ve taken into consideration.
“We’re not even close,” he said.
His biggest concern was with the potential environmental impacts of co-location (up to five growers being allowed to grow on one parcel).
“I don’t think the EIR has addressed that enough or that we can understand that well enough,” Mills said. “What kind of guarantees have we got to protect our children and our water?”
Tofanelli agreed that the EIR is inadequate, adding that the established setback limitations aren’t far enough and minimum parcel size isn’t big enough to address odor concerns.
“It’s gonna cause problems,” he said. “I experienced the problems when I came onto this board. It was nonstop emails and calls.”
District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway made the motion to move the item, stating, “We have to regulate this industry. We need to be able to (filter) out those people that are serious and want to do it correctly and those that don’t.”
Ben Stopper, supervisor for District 5, made the second on the motion, citing economic and public safety benefits of the regulations.
“The one thing we all agree on is that illegal marijuana grows are a blight on Calaveras County. Environmentally, socially. Everyone benefits from the eradication of illegal grows,” Stopper said. “These regulations are designed to make sure the legal grows are done in a safe responsible way.”
He said he’ll be watching the process and the results, and that he will be proactive in suggesting any changes that need to be made.
Addressing comments made by members of the public related to the effect of cannabis ingestion on developing adolescent brains, Stopper said providing marijuana to minors would still be illegal, the same as alcohol and cigarettes.
Adding to Stopper’s points, District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi said the ban has been ineffective and that regulations could rake in upwards of $11 million per year for the county and employ 1,000 to 2,000 people. It could provide adequate funding for the Sheriff’s Office Marijuana Enforcement Team to “stomp out illegal grows and stop the environmental damage that they cause,” he said.
“People can assign morality to this product, but I believe this is a legal product and a legal business, and I believe that increasing businesses and jobs are a good thing for my county, thus I will support this,” Garamendi said.
Shortly after the vote, cheering and clapping erupted through the board chambers.
The board reconvened later in the day to address the remaining items on the agenda – the fee study for the regulatory program, the background check ordinance, its associated fee study, and the item to grant the cannabis department authority to access criminal history information from state and federal sources as part of the background check process.
All four items were passed individually on 3-2 votes, with Tofanelli and Mills opposed. Both supervisors expressed concerns regarding a lack of clarity on where fees would be deposited in the county budget and how they would be appropriated.
“If I can’t find a line item that’s showing an appropriation or … showing how we’re going to spend, what are we doing?” Mills said. “This is going to take some very interesting manipulation of the budget to make it work.”
In response, Deputy CAO Christa Von Latta said, “The county administrative office will be bringing back an item with recommendations for building out this budget. This fee study was intended to capture the cost of the program, and that’s what we’re bringing before you today.”
Because the final budget was already passed, it would take a four-fifths vote to expend any fees collected under the program, Tofanelli said.
“You’re now collecting fees you cannot spend … so the money to do this program is going to be coming out of the General Fund,” Tofanelli said.
Garamendi responded that he has “read the item, and it is very comprehensive on exactly what the funds are going to be used for … how we operationalize that is the question that Supervisor Tofanelli has brought up, and he’s correct. We’ll have to take that on next.”
Under the fee study for the cultivation ordinance, cultivation permits cost $12,561.78 with annual renewal fees of $2,606.75, a background check fee of $153 and an appeal fee of $947. That’s based on the assumption that the county will process 152 applications for permits (or 80% of 190 formerly registered growers that were in compliance with the county that are likely to apply), according to County Administrative Officer Al Alt in previous meetings.
Planning Director Peter Maurer told the Enterprise Tuesday that the ordinance will become effective in 30 days unless sufficient signatures are gathered for a referendum. Fees go into effect in 60 days, and no application can be filed until that date.
He said he expects that all 190 eligible applications will be filed, since the board allowed the “transfer of the right to apply,” meaning a person or entity that held prior registration can now sell their right to apply to someone else. In a previous draft of the ordinance, that person would have only been able to transfer the permit after applying for it and receiving it themselves.
“I don’t know if everyone who previously cultivated but is no longer in the county is aware of that,” Maurer wrote in email correspondence. “It will be hard to know until the applications start coming in, but I suspect it will be close to the maximum.”
A correction was issued for this story on Oct. 22 to indicate that the number of anticipated applications based on staff estimations is not approximately 100, but approximately 190, the maximum amount of eligible growers.
This story was updated on Oct. 22 at 5 p.m. to include coverage of the rest of the meeting.