Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County’s planning director has reported that there are 1,957 Humboldt County cannabis permit applications being reviewed and the process has been “chaotic” but is improving.
At its Aug. 16 meeting, Planning Director John Ford gave the county’s Planning Commission a cannabis permitting status report.
Ford began by acknowledging the challenges of cannabis permitting. “Yes, the process is chaotic, probably for everyone,” he said. “But everybody is learning every day and I think we are getting better.”
Since the start of accepting permit applications on Jan. 1, 2016, the county has approved 237 cannabis permits. Of those, 97 are for administrative or over-the-counter permits, 64 are for special permits that require neighbor notification and 76 are conditional use permits that require Planning Commission review.
The county’s remaining “total permit load” is 1,957 applications, said Ford.
The sizable permitting backload is offset by some “huge successes,” he continued, including the county’s interim permitting program.
The temporary permits precede application for state licenses and Ford reported that Humboldt County has California’s second-largest number of them, with over 900. Santa Barbara county has the most licenses in the state but has no requirement for local interim permitting.
“So we are leading the state in terms of people who actually give some thought and consideration to the issuance of these temporary permits,” Ford said.
He said the county has seen over 450 violations, with 233 remaining to be resolved. Ford called the total number of violations a “huge percentage” of the overall number of applications.
One mistake the county has made is accepting incomplete applications, said Ford. “One of our mantras is that we want to find the people who are ready to move and move them fast,” he continued.
The county’s recently-expanded “cannabis team” of 13 staffers includes a three-person application intake team, teams for northern and southern sections of the county, and a supervising planner.
Another team focuses on violations and performing permit compliance inspections.
Ford expects that the backlog of applications awaiting county review will be ready for referral to other agencies by mid-October. At that point, newer applications submitted under the county’s updated cannabis ordinance will “start being able to move through the system.”
Existing cultivation under interim permits and manufacturing/processing permit applications are the county’s priorities, said Ford.
One of the time-consuming aspects of the process is confirming the size of pre-existing grows. Applicants, the county and the Department of Fish and Wildlife often disagree on the historical footprints of cultivation areas.
Commission Chair Bob Morris asked why Santa Barbara is ahead of the county in numbers of state licenses and isn’t running into those disagreements.
Ford said state licenses are temporary at this point and their holders in Santa Barbara are “going to run into a buzz saw” when the state system switches to permanent, annually-renewed licenses in 2019.
“We’ve heard from the state that they’re way, way behind us – they’re not going to be in a place to permit all of those temporary licenses,” he continued.
Another permitting challenge is confirming that project parcels have been legally-created. Title companies are finding it hard to track down documentation, delaying permitting. Morris asked why that would be the case.
“I’m finding a lot of things very strange and hard to believe but I’m just starting to expect that there will be things that seem outlandish that shouldn’t be, but are,” Ford said.
Interactions between planners and applicants can be strained. Ford’s office is next to the Planning Department’s front counter and “I hear people arguing with staff about why they don’t need to submit things.”
He added, “The staff doesn’t make it up because it somehow benefits them to require certain things – they’re trying to get people to a place where they can get across the finish line.”
Commissioner Ben Shepherd had suggested putting the permitting scenario on the agenda of the next commission meeting as an action item. “Looking at these numbers, I just don’t see how we’re going to do it,” he said of the county’s remaining work.
Commissioners agreed with Shepherd and will continue the discussion – and possibly make decisions – at the next meeting.