Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Over the strong objections of the county’s environmental advocates and the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the Planning Commission has voted to allow hundreds of existing marijuana growers to continue cultivating before they finish the permitting process.
At the Oct. 19 commission meeting, the county’s planning director refuted the claims of several environmental groups and a DFW representative that doing so would violate the California Environmental Quality Act. He told commissioners that allowing what’s being described as “interim permitting” is aligned with the environmental review supporting the county’s commercial marijuana production ordinance.
There are 725 existing growers whose permit applications have been deemed as complete and who are eligible for the interim permitting. The program is being launched in response to the advance of state commercial marijuana licensing, which is due to start in January but could begin as early as next month.
The county’s ordinance covers commercial medical marijuana production. Since the state’s reviews cover marijuana for general or recreational use and include confirmation of local permitting, the county views the interim approvals as a means of syncing local and state processes.
But during a public comment session, it was described as an end run around the conditions of the county marijuana ordinance’s environmental review document.
Scott Bauer of the DFW’s Watershed Enforcement Team said his agency has “significant concerns with providing interim permits to so many sites without some level of environmental review.”
He added that granting interim permits is “against what we believe is required” in the county marijuana ordinance’s environmental review document.
The DFW has commented on about 200 marijuana permit applications since last April and Bauer said dozens have “erroneously reported their existing cultivation size … in some cases substantially.”
Bauer said there are instances where some applications were made under the existing grow category but aerial photography shows no evidence of it. The county should “at a minimum” review aerial imagery and check grow sizes before issuing interim permits, he continued.
Representatives of environmental groups also warned against the interim program. Stephanie Tidwell, the executive director of Friends of the Eel River (FOER), said her group “already had grave concerns” about the permitting process and they’ve intensified.
The county is “now proposing to dispense with even the limited environmental review” of its marijuana ordinance, she continued.
Scott Greacen, FOER’s conservation director, referred to the DFW’s stance and described interim permitting as a means of giving non-compliant growers a regulatory pass.
“If you’re going to give people a way out of complying then you’re really pulling the rug out from under the ordinance,” he said.
Tom Wheeler of the Environmental Protection and Information Center said his group shares the concerns.
The claims of skirting environmental review were firmly countered by County Planning Director John Ford.
He explained that grows in existence prior to establishment of the county’s permitting system are not considered to be non-compliant if they continue cultivating as they’re going through the approval process.
“Nothing is being permitting in the context of this ordinance amendment that’s not already allowed,” he said. “There is no change – all this functionally does is that it issues an interim permit for people who are already allowed to continue to operate.” Interim permits are useful, he added, because they will set conditions such as prohibitions against expanding or diverging from what’s detailed in permit applications. Ford agreed to having his staff validate reported grow site conditions. Regarding false permit application information, he said, “In all honesty, that’s something we deal with every single day.”
He acknowledged that there’s “a time crunch” with double-checking 725 applications but “in light of the concern here, that is something that needs to be done.”
A majority of commissioners voted to recommend that the county’s Board of Supervisors amend the marijuana ordinance to include interim permitting. Some of the amendment language made it unclear that the ordinance’s environmental review will still apply and was stricken.
Commissioners Dave Edmunds and Alan Bongio cast dissent votes.
The commission then proceeded with its ongoing marijuana workshop, discussing the content of recent local workshops in Garberville and Willow Creek, and several aspects of a new draft version of the marijuana ordinance.
The commission will continue the workshop process on Nov. 2. It will be capped by a public hearing, a benchmark that was originally scheduled to occur last week.