On Dec. 19, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors will have the opportunity to enact sensible regulations for the Calaveras cannabis industry. This moment has been long in the making, beginning two years ago with the drafting of what is commonly known as the February 2016 draft ordinance. Much has happened since. County officials failed to adopt that measure twice, and decided to conduct an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before proceeding further. By spring 2016, three lines of action went forward: the citizen-backed initiative, Measure D; the Cannabis Urgency Ordinance; and the county-backed Measure C. When Measure D came before the supervisors for possible adoption, they decided instead to approve the initiative for the ballot. Around the same time, the supervisors opted to put Measure C up for voter consideration. Thus, the previous Board of Supervisors passed up at least three opportunities to put cannabis regulations on the books, and a year a half later, the EIR is complete, Measure C taxes are being collected, and the new supervisors will get their first go at regulations.
So what’s at stake? Quality of life of all residents, the environment, the livelihood of thousands of local families, as well as local businesses where they shop, dine, celebrate and play, constituting $350 million of the local economy and thousands of jobs. Potential tax revenues to the county amount to tens of millions of dollars.
These can fund our agriculture, building, planning, Code Compliance, and Sheriff’s Departments to implement cannabis track and trace, ensure our roads are improved and maintained, review, permit and monitor new businesses, and provide for public safety. In historically record time, Calaveras County can arise from being the fourth-poorest county in the state to one of the wealthiest.
Or, it can go into bankruptcy. The division, angst and vitriol we see in our politics will intensify. Families that invested in their businesses and properties will take the county to court. Unregulated grows will go on unabated as they have for decades, without any oversight from the Regional Water Quality Resources Board that protects our water, the agricultural department that monitors pesticide use, and the sheriff, code compliance, and the rest of our county government will have no funding to do much about it. If there is a ban, the state will not send Calaveras any money collected from the statewide cannabis taxes. They only do that when you participate in the program.
Now the future is in the hands of our county supervisors. Before them are two alternatives: a ban and a regulation ordinance. From the point of view of the cannabis industry, the Planning Commission regulations sent up to the supervisors on Nov.29 are a mixed bag. Consider this: county data, as of the beginning of November, reported that 503 registrants for cannabis cultivation licenses under the Urgency Ordinance had been either issued permits (188), were in pending status (41), or otherwise in process (274). The Planning Department has been denying about 50 percent of the applicants, which means that when all are processed, there will have been about 350 cultivation permits issued countywide, occupying well under 175 acres (0.0002636 percent) out of the county’s 663,680 total acres. Under the current Measure C tax structure, these cultivators represent about $14.4 million in taxes to be paid annually to the county. But the proposed regulation removes all Rural Residential (RR) and Residential Agricultural (RA) properties, which substantially reduces the Measure C tax collectibles by about half, and puts hundreds of currently permitted families out of business. On the other hand, the Planning Commission did not agree to a 50-acre minimum, setting it at 20 acres instead, and it eliminated the cap of 50 licenses that was previously proposed. It agreed to allow unclassified properties to rezone, and for others to obtain variances or to move to suitable locations. The Planning Commission is on the right track.
What now? I believe that in order to ensure that neighbors are relieved of having to see, hear or smell cannabis gardens, and to preserve quality of life for all, public safety, the fiscal and economic health of Calaveras County, and to reduce and minimize the potential for devastating litigation, the supervisors need to adopt the Planning Commission’s regulation proposal as is, with specific changes that will allow for businesses zoned out by the new regulations to stay in the game by allowing: 1) Lateral transfers to suitably zone properties; 2) Transfers to properties under co-location on large parcels of at least 100 acres, with a ratio of one half-acre grow per 20 acres; 3) Ability to obtain variances to setbacks and other requirements, with neighbor permission; 4) Two years to employ these administrative remedies; 5) Setbacks of 300 feet from border of grow to nearest neighbor residence; and finally, 6) Allow for residential agricultural-zoned properties to be permitted. These tweaks to the proposed regulation ordinance will do a number of things. Transfers from RR properties will protect families in residential neighborhoods and maintain the Measure C cannabis tax base at its current $14.4 million. Co-location will allow for large-landed families, some with hundreds of acres lying fallow for generations, to lease sub-parcels to dedicated growers, thus spreading the economic benefits of the industry. According to the sheriff, co-location will make his job easier by allowing him to better monitor grows that are clustered on single large parcels. Variances already exist under county rules, offering growers and neighbors the ability to come to their own agreements. Importantly, all of these administrative remedies will need to be exhausted before anyone can successfully file a lawsuit against the county. Allowing permits on RA-zoned properties, reasonable setbacks and sufficient time to settle into properly zoned properties will provide current licensees a sound basis for participating in a successful Calaveras cannabis industry. These provisions, along with the rest of the Planning Commission’s regulatory proposal, will go a long way in maintaining the quality of life, property rights and the economic prosperity of Calaveras County.
Dr. Prapanna Smith
Registered Calaveras County marijuana cultivator