Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Five Humboldt County property owners have been fined a total of almost $5 million for code violations related to cannabis cultivation but the county isn’t expecting them to pay and the sites will have to be cleaned up.
The reality of issuing cannabis-related code penalties was made apparent at the November 13 Board of Supervisors meeting, when the penalties were approved.
Each of the properties has drawn over $900,000 in penalties for illegal grading, unpermitted structures and violations of the county’s cannabis regulations. Three of the five properties are in the Honeydew, Mattole Valley and Ettersburg areas of Southern Humboldt and the other two are located in eastern Humboldt.
The property owners are Eureka resident David Couch, Garberville resident Divan Dimitrov, Immortal Sunshine LLC based in Cutten, Honeydew resident Jim Shinn and Financial Fitness LLC, based in Redding.
The county is expecting that they’ll walk away from their properties and ignore the fines. Planning Director John Ford said the county will likely have to place liens on the properties.
“This sets the stage for the county to be in a position where, once the lien is recorded, to then take this to court for foreclosure purposes,” he continued. “And then the value that the county would get would be based upon the sales price of the property, which in all probability would not equal what the lien amounts are being assessed at today.”
“What about cleaning the property up?” asked Board Chair Ryan Sundberg.
Ford said $500,000 has been reserved for clean-ups and is “intended to be reimbursed when, ultimately, properties are sold.”
Supervisor Mike Wilson said that “fines and penalties are zero when someone just walks away” and the outcome is likely to be “orphan properties” with no income potential.
“I think we should start really looking at, programmatically, how we work with land trusts and those sorts of organizations to repatriate some of these properties back into larger land holdings if they really can’t sustain themselves as properties in and of themselves,” he continued.
Wilson added that “maybe even some help from the state” could emerge on the abatements.
Supervisor Rex Bohn noted that the targeted properties are relatively small, with the largest being 40 acres. And they may already have liens on them, in which case the county would be a second party to cost recovery if the properties are sold.
The situation isn’t likely to pencil out in the county’s favor.
“Everyone agrees it is what it is, if there’s a first place lienholder, they’re there and we’ll be second and we’re going to be stuck with a bill on some of these, for sure, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said Sundberg.
He also said the state has funding for clean-ups and one of the purposes of the Measure S cannabis excise tax is to fund them. The contributions will be needed because “these aren’t going to be worth enough to pay for the abatements, let alone if there are liens on them.”
Regardless of the fine and cost equations, a process that leads to site remediation is the ultimate goal.
Supervisor Estelle Fennell described the properties as “poster children for what the community has been asking us to address,” with “very egregious” violations.
Ford said the property owners who’ve been fined didn’t respond in any way to violation notices sent last summer. Fourteen other property owners who were noticed did respond and are entering into compliance agreements with the county.