Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – For years, Sun Valley Floral Farms has been asked whether they’d get into the cannabis cultivation business once the drug was legalized. The answer has been, consistently and adamantly: no.
That’s still the case, despite what might seem like an ideal and highly profitable extension of the company’s land assets and cultivation skills. “I don’t see that happening,” said Lane Devries, Sun Valley CEO. “That’s not our intent.”
But now, the Arcata Bottom-based flower company is laying the groundwork for a cannabis facility on the south side of its sprawling Bottoms complex – one it would sell when and if it is approved.
The purpose of the sale is to gather revenue to help sustain the flower operation. “Our goal is to provide jobs in the area as long as we possibly can,” Devries said. “This would help make us more competitive.”
An application for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) and zoning amendment for an industrial cannabis facility has been prepared by a consultant and filed with the Humboldt County Planning Department by Arcata Land Company, LLC.
The company’s principal is listed as Leendert Devries, CEO of Sun Valley Group, located in the former Simpson Timber mill building on Foster Avenue, which Sun Valley acquired in the late 1990s. Arcata Land Company was set up then by Sun Valley to administer the property.
According to a company statement, when Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, passed in November 2016 making commercial cultivation legal, Sun Valley’s Board of Directors unanimously approved moving forward with the CUP application and sale of the property.
Sun Valley’s main facility next door is not included in the permit application.
Devries said his company won’t make any physical changes to the property; that would be up to the the next owner. Sun Valley would only satisfy the regulatory requirements, then sell the property.
The CUP app describes the project as as 225,150-square-foot indoor cultivation facility, a retail nursery and a manufacturing facility. It would draw water from an on-site well, with additional water storage for firefighting.
Some 37 to 96 employees would work at the site, growing, drying, trimming and curing the product. The applicant estimates that the facility would generate 102 to 228 vehicles trips per day on Foster Avenue, presumably including both employee vehicles and trucks there to pick up shipments.
The increased traffic would be added to that anticipated from Danco’s planned Creekside Homes subdivision, also located on Foster Avenue to the east. Still in the planning stages, Creekside Homes would include a 32-lot subdivision, plus 25 cottages and a 100-bed residential care facility. Its principal entrance/exit is located on Foster Avenue.
The CUP application states the cannabis facility’s hours as 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., though the cultivation side would operate up to 16 hours per day and the manufacturing work could continue around the clock, “pending on demands.”
An on-site wastewater treatment system would be in place. PG&E would provide electrical power.
The land is zoned Agricultural Exclusive/Prime and Non-prime lands (AE).
While the former Simpson mill appears from the outside to be multiple structures in close proximity, the interior consists of a single large open space.
A floor plan included in the CUP application indicates separate areas for different aspects of the facility: a large area for cultivation, manufacturing, processing, distribution and a laboratory; another large area for drying; and a smaller area for processing, manufacturing and distribution.
Separate areas outside the building are designated for a 120,000 square foot nursery greenhouse, parking, truck loading and a 100-by-80 foot leach field.
The requested CUP requires consideration by the county Planning Commission, but that won’t occur any time soon. A staff report on the project will have to await responses from the many agencies to whom the project applications has been referred. Those referrals went out Jan. 24, with a 30-day response period.
Even then, the project will have to take its place in the queue of some 1,700 similar cannabis projects pending at the county level.
“It’s not on our near-term horizon,” said Bob Russell, deputy director of Planning and Building.
Some 20 agencies have been referred the application, including the City of Arcata, Arcata Fire Protection District, the Pacific Union School District, various regulatory agencies, rancherias and others.
David Loya, Arcata’s community development director, said the city is developing a response. Among other considerations, it will look at traffic impacts and how the project will impact Arcata’s green belt policies.
The city has been trying to protect its western edge from excessive development, an initiative that gained momentum after Cypress Grove Chevre attempted to install a goat farm on the other side of Foster Avenue to the south back in 2011.
Ed Laidlaw, fire prevention specialist for Arcata Fire, said the size of the building and its operation are “a concern,” but that the project offers an opportunity to bring the structure fully up to code. While it has a fire-suppression sprinkler system, Laidlaw said it’s an old system that’s not code-compliant.
Before it could be used for cannabis growing and manufacture, the old warehouse would have to be compliant with current building, fire, mechanical and electrical codes. That, Laidlaw said, would represent an improvement over the current situation.
“It’s very significant for us because we can truly enforce these regulations before they turn the key and start this operation,” he said. At that point, he said, “It’s basically just another building.”
Another positive, Laidlaw said, was the structure’s relative isolation. Any fire that broke out would be unlikely to spread, as adjacent structures are few and far between. “From the fire side, that’s a good thing,” he said.
While a company statement stresses that Sun Valley “has no interest in entering the cannabis business,” it is interested in selling off some non-productive assets to support the core operation.
“Management feels it is prudent to shed excess assets and to reinvest into the core business of growing and marketing flowers, in order to ensure the viability of the enterprise,” states the company.
Having an approved cannabis facility would surely enhance the value of the old Simpson mill, making for a more lucrative sale.
Neighbors in Westwood have gotten wind of the project and are discussing it, but public facts, so far, are few.
Devries said a rumor that a Japanese company has been enlisted to operate the facility is unfounded. “That’s a new one,” he said.
The company has been in discussions with several prospective buyers; some local, others from the Bay Area, Los Angeles and offshore.
Devries said the building is largely unused, with just a few small operations now utilizing the space.
Sun Valley maintains some coolers for bulb storage, while RVs are also stored there. A small mushroom wholesaler also occupies part of the building.
Pacific Union School did not immediately respond to a request for comment.