Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County’s cannabis industry is advancing to its next phase with the Board of Supervisors’ adoption of a new commercial production ordinance.
At a May 8 hearing, a majority of supervisors voted to approve inland and coastal versions of the new ordinance along with an Environmental Impact Report.
The ordinance will increase the scale of regulated cannabis production but includes key rule changes and new restrictions. It introduces a 600-foot setback from school bus stops and retroactively applies setbacks to outdoor grows in and near community areas.
It caps the number of additional cultivation permits at 3,500, which covers 1,205 acres. Permit shares are allotted in each of the county’s 12 watershed areas but new or expanded grows won’t be permitted in watersheds that are considered impacted.
During a public comment period, Stephanie Tidwell of Friends of the Eel River said the county has failed to do adequate watershed analysis and the ordinance’s controls aren’t strong enough to prevent “localized salmon extinction events on the Eel.”
Earlier, Supervisor Mike Wilson, who would cast the only vote against approving the ordinance, said more needs to be done beyond setting an overall permitting limit.
Noting that permitted grows near neighborhoods will have to conform to new restrictions, Wilson said the same should be done for grows in and around watersheds.
He added that road standards are higher in the new ordinance and cultivators who were permitted under the county’s current ordinance should be held to them to “lessen those impacts on the watersheds.”
During public comment, Terra Carver of the Humboldt County Growers Association told supervisors that retroactively applying conditions to cultivation permitted in ag lands near cities and neighborhoods is “unfair, unjust and very impactful.”
Carver noted that a main goal of the county’s existing ordinance has been to draw growers out of watersheds and into lands zoned for agriculture. Having been directed to ag lands, cultivators must now change their operations or relocate, as residents of nearby neighborhoods have complained about odor.
Fieldbrook Winery co-owner Judy Hodgson, who is publisher of the North Coast Journal, supported the retroactive rules. She said cultivators “should be required to minimize the damage that will surely be done to their neighbors’ quality of life.”
She added that for over a year, she’s emailed and phone-messaged Board Chair Ryan Sundberg “to help me with this very issue” but the outreach has been “pretty much ignored.”
Hodgson suspects the reason for the non-response is that Sundberg’s uncle, Garth Sundberg, has a permitted grow at the end of Fieldbrook Road where two “huge greenhouses” have been set up near a mobile home park.
She added that Sundberg’s uncle “somehow convinced” the Blue Lake School District to move its bus stop from the front of the mobile home park to avoid violation of the setback rule.
“If Garth Sundberg has the money and the power to move a bus stop, he can also build a proper enclosed greenhouse,” Hodgson said.
“It must be election season,” said Sundberg, whose bid for a third term is being challenged in the June election.
Under the new ordinance, additional grows and those that have already been permitted on agricultural lands in and near municipal spheres of influence, community planning areas and tribal areas will have to meet the new requirements.
Growers who are already in those areas will have 36 months to comply or relocate.
Options for compliance include 600-foot setbacks from houses and installation of odor control. Another option is to get a conditional use permit, which requires Planning Commission review.
Late in the hearing, Wilson again questioned why those new conditions aren’t also required for watersheds.
“If the fish were lined up here like the people were, I think we would be considering tighter regulations and converting from (the existing ordinance to the new one) in watersheds,” he said. “We’re considering it in spheres of influences of the cities because people are lined up and fish don’t line up – so we’re not listening to something that we can’t hear, I suppose.”
Supervisor Rex Bohn said growers who don’t get permits are the ones who need more attention.
“I wish we were putting as much effort as we’re doing here in going after the 82 percent (of growers) that haven’t even come near the front door of the Planning and Building Department, because those are the people that are creating the problems in the watersheds,” he said as audience applause sounded.
He added that the cultivators who seek and get permits are operating responsibly and meeting environmental standards.
Some growers told supervisors that the county’s permitting rules are limiting investment potential and disproportionately impacting homestead-scale cultivation.
Supervisor Estelle Fennell said that cannabis is undergoing “cultural adaptation” and regulation attempts to balance multiple interests.
“We’re hearing it from all sides – we’re not going to make everybody happy,” she continued.
The new ordinance also includes an eight-acre per person cultivation limit.
Another new aspect is allowing indoor grows of up to 10,000 square feet on large parcels with prime agricultural soils. Wilson disagreed with that, describing it as an impact on prime farmland.
Wilson indicated he’d vote against approval of the ordinance but credited planning staff for their work on it.
After the majority approval vote, Fennell also thanked planning staff and described the ordinance as “historic.”
Planning Director John Ford said it will take effect next month “at the earliest.”