County struggles to collect fines for cannabis violations

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – ​​Humboldt County’s commercial cannabis ordinance sets high daily fines for property owners who don’t take action on correcting violations. 

But county officials are finding that imposing fines is one thing and collecting them is another.

​The dilemma of dealing with the aftermath of illegal cannabis grows was again discussed at the May 11 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson.

Up for approval was $3.6 million in civil penalty assessments against four property owners whose violations included illegal grading, development within streamside areas and illegal building construction.  

​Last month, the board was told that $10.9 million in cannabis penalties had accrued and recording liens on properties is the only viable way of collecting unpaid fines.

​The futility of acting on liens would be apparent as last week’s discussion ensued. Asked about how site clean-ups can be enforced, Planning Director John Ford described what happens when people abandon their properties and cut loose from the county.

​“Unfortunately what happens in a lot of these cases is that the property owner drops out of sight or is difficult to get a hold of and chooses not to pay for the cost of the clean-up,” he said.

​He added that while some believe the county is thirsty to take properties through liens, “That’s the last thing we want to do.” 

​The preferred option is to “go slow” and work with property owners with the hope that they’ll invest in clean-ups and get significantly-reduced penalties in exchange.

​Ford said taking action on a lien is a “couple-year process” and county costs – including the general fund costs of working through the lien process -- would be recouped upon resale.

​The penalty assessment for each of the four property owners is about $900,000.

​If left unpaid, the county would have to rely on the values of their properties to recover costs.

​And Supervisor Mike Wilson said absent of illegal cannabis cultivation, that value is low.

​“The cost to fix the damages that is done to these sites is often larger than the value of the property,” he continued. “So at some point, there will be government subsidy to remediate some of these sites.”

​Since some illegal cannabis growers choose sites that can’t be permitted, the properties offer little or no income potential and have low value.

​Wilson suggested an alternative approach -- incentivizing the incorporation of the sites into neighboring properties.

​Supervisor Steve Madrone agreed and said the county’s slow pace on liens puts it at a disadvantage if others who are owed money file liens first.

​He questioned the viability of property resales.

​He estimated that 40-acre parcels in the far-flung areas of the county are worth between $40,000 and $80,000. “And what I hear is that with a lot of these parcels that do not have a cannabis permit, you can’t even sell them, nobody wants to buy them”

​Supervisors approved the penalty assessments. Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who had pulled them from the consent agenda of routine items, said she wants to “make a commitment to help find a better solution.”


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