Mendo’s Murky Pot Rules (Part 2)

by Mark Scaramella, January 26, 2017

WE'RE STILL TRYING to figure out what Mendo’s new "medical" pot regulation really means for Mendocino County.

THE PLANNING COMMISSION is set to consider the new rules and approval regime:

Date: January 19, 2017

To: Planning Commission

From: Mary Lynn Hunt, Senior Planner

Re: Amendments To The Mendocino County Code To Add Chapter 10a.17- Medical Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance And Chapter 20.242 - Medical Cannabis Cultivation Site Regulation Of The Mendocino County Inland Zoning ordinance, Collectively Called MCCR.

Introduction:

Request: Provide its Report and Recommendation to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors (Board) regarding the establishment of the Medical Cannabis Cultivation Regulation (MCCR) to govern the commercial cultivation of medical cannabis in unincorporated Mendocino County, outside the coastal zone (as defined by the County’s Local Coastal Program), consistent with the State’s current medical cannabis laws by adopting two proposed Mendocino County Code amendments: (1) Chapter 10A.17- Medical Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance of the Mendocino County Code, administered by the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office (ACO); and (2) Chapter 20.242 - Medical Cannabis Cultivation Site Regulation of the Mendocino County Inland Zoning Ordinance, administered by the Department of Planning and Building Services (PBS).

Summary: A public meeting before the Planning Commission was held regarding the MCCR and the associated Initial Study on December 1, 2015. At this meeting public comment was received and direction was given to staff and the CEQA consultant (LACO Associates) regarding information to report back on.

At a public hearing held before the Planning Commission on December 15, 2016 staff and LACO Associates presented written and verbal staff reports describing the MCCR and a supplemental staff report summarizing responses to the Planning Commissions direction based on public comments at the previous meeting.

The following (below linked) discussion summarizes changes recommended by staff and the consultant team, memorializes direction received from the Planning Commission and provides additional information requested by the Planning Commission.

AS IT STANDS, about a hundred growers have submitted themselves to the onerous and expensive County "legalization" process while another hundred or so have simply paid for licenses and ignored the paperwork part of the process. Apparently these growers are “existing” growers, i.e., sites that existed prior to January 1, 2016.

AS FAR AS WE CAN TELL, the largest single medical pot garden to be allowed will be 10,000 square feet or about a quarter of an acre, and only on parcels that are at least ten acres in size. Smaller parcels means lower maximum garden sizes. On average you can probably get something like a thousand medium size plants on 10,000 square feet, depending on spacing and plant size.

IF YOUR PARCEL is zoned ag, upland residential, or rangeland you can grow the 10,000 square foot garden with a simple “zoning clearance” permit (i.e., verification that the proposed site is in the proper zoning and no other review) as long as you promise to comply with the many requirements.

[For the actual requirements go to the County Ag Department’s webpage.]

IF YOUR OUTDOOR GARDEN is "small," less than 2500 square feet (25 x 100 feet which seems much bigger than "small" to us), and your parcel is at least 2 acres you can grow your pot with nothing more than the “zoning clearance” on almost any zoning (except new grows on timberland or forestland).

ABOUT HALF THE COUNTY, i.e., most of inland Mendocino County, is zone ag. Most of the rest of the non-timber inland acreage is zoned upland residential and rural residential. Therefore most of the eastern half of Mendo will be eligible for pot grows with nothing more than a verification of zoning and a promise to play by the rules.

ONE OF THE WRINKLES that seems to be drawing attention is the intersection of ownerships and parcels. Apparently one owner of multiple parcels can grow multiple sites, one grow per legal parcel, meaning larger ranches with certificates of compliance (i.e, multiple legal parcels) could see much larger grows.

AND NOW, with the Planning Commission’s input, there’s another proposed new variation on that wrinkle allowing multiple owners of one parcel to each have their own garden as long as it stays under the square foot maximum for the parcel size. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what kinds of pot arguments and disputes might ensue under such conditions. (“Oh no, Mr. Code Enforcement Man, I didn’t’ exceed the size limit, that guy over there did! See? All those plants are his!”)

THE RESTRICTIONS would be reasonable if people volunteer to abide by them after they apply and get permission, and if there’s any real enforcement. Both of which are highly unlikely.

OF COURSE there are still all the “outlaw” grows by people who don’t choose to try to get legal, a process which can cost between $50k and $100k depending on the size and nature of the permit required and the associated costs such as advisors, consultants, water board permits, etc., according to the Small Farmers Association. Pot growers who want to be legal must agree to stay relatively small and be able to put up quite a sum, then be subject to taxes if they want to be fully legal to sell their product.

THE PLANNING COMMISSION has proposed a few other minor changes in what would be allowed as described in the planning department’s “staff memo” linked above.

THE PLANNING COMMISSION MEETINGS regarding the “Medicinal Cannabis Cultivation Regulation” (MCCR) have been dominated by dozens if not hundreds of pot growers. We are not aware of a single non-grower attending those meetings and we are not aware of any serious opposition to the proposed pot growing regime.

THE NEW POT CULTIVATION REGIME also moves the approval authority out of the Sheriff’s office and over to the Ag Department and the Planning Department. But don’t expect much serious review or enforcement out of them; they’re understaffed and swamped, and the new state and county rules are extensive, complicated, paperwork heavy, and disputable. To force compliance from a non-cooperative grower would require so much staff time that only the most egregious cases would even rise to consideration of enforcement action.

IT ALL SEEMS dependent on voluntary compliance, which in Mendocino County pot history seems optimistic to the point of naive. And, of course, there’s no mechanism in place to verify a grower’s claim that his crop is “medicinal.”

AND WHO KNOWS how Orange Man will instruct his battalions of federal drug warriors where devil weed remains a Class One drug and a felony federal offense?

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