Mendo Goes To Pot, Again
by AVA News Service, February 15, 2017
The latest installment of the long running saga of marijuana regulation in Mendoland played out before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday Feb. 7. The meeting began with a presentation on Sheriff Allman's proposed new jail within a jail. The new building is needed to provide new beds to relieve overcrowding in the old jail. The old jail is also falling apart faster than the Sheriff can patch it together. When doors and locks don't work the inmates and staff are put at risk. The new building will house inmates who would be at risk in the general population, like child molesters, the elderly and those with gender identification “issues.” It will also house the mentally ill who are often targets of violence but are sometimes the perps. High risk prisoners like gangbangers and others with a high propensity for ultra-vi will also be included. Mendo applied for state funding twice before and was denied, finishing just out of the money the last time around. The building is expected to cost up to $25 million with the county match set at $1 million. Costs for operation are estimated at another $1 million annually. And the majority of the prisoners will still be in the existing jail which is increasingly unsafe and deteriorating.
But the Mendo marijuana tax could float everyone's boat, if the County can only get its medical marijuana cultivation program up and running. The marijuana tax approved by 63% of the voters last November is on hold because a handful of pot growers say it needed a two thirds vote to pass. Anti-pot taxers like Pebbles Trippet have signed onto the lawsuit which mimics similar claims being made by the Grand Daddy of anti-taxers, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Associationwhich is suing the City of Ukiah over their recently adopted road tax. The argument is that the pot tax and the road tax were put on the ballot as "general taxes" which only require a majority vote. Howard Jarvis and Pebs claim that the presence on the ballot of a non-binding advisory measure asking how the money should be spent converted the general tax to a special tax which requires a two thirds vote. Like the lawsuit between the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District and the City of Ukiah, the only sure winners will be the lawyers.
The Board Of Supes (actually three of them since Woodhouse resigned and Hamburg recused himself because his daughter is a pot grower) has been working on the pot rules since the end of 2015. They have held numerous meetings to discuss the details of the ordinance. Last spring it was announced the new pot rules were a "project" subject to full CEQA review and would not be ready for adoption in time for the 2015 growing season. The Supes launched a "Hail Mary" known as the Urgency Ordinance (UO) in an effort to allow pot permits in 2015. The Mendocino County Blacktail Association (MCBA) promptly filed suit claiming the UO was itself subject to CEQA. One of many ironies is that the MCBA is mostly conservative ranch and timberland owners who made their fortunes primarily by ripping off the environment. The County and MCBA settled the lawsuit on the condition the county shut the program down within 24 hours. Anyone who got their application in by the deadline was grandfathered in. Everyone else was out.
The lawsuit settlement triggered a flood of applications with between 1000 and 200 coming in during the last day for a total of about 350 applications. As documented by Will Parish in two recent articles in the mighty AVA, administration of the program floundered from the beginning. Laytonville area rancher Chris Brennan filed a complaint alleging that pot grows on Stuart Bewley’s Adanac Ranch were not eligible for permits. The County spent several months trying to determine if applications were in compliance with the rules or not. The County finally decided the Adanac Ranch pot grows were not eligible for permits but by then all the pot had been harvested and the growers were probably in the midst of a tropical vacation. The County pot regs were lurching along in similar slo-mo fashion, bouncing from committee to the Supes and back again.
Meanwhile, Ballot Measure AF, the stoner community’s attempt to write its own rules, qualified for the ballot as an citizen’s initiative. Originally known as the Heritage Initiative, it was designed to protect Mendo's outlaw heritage of unregulated pot grows by making commercial marijuana growing a principle permitted use in every zoning district in the county. Opponents claimed it also opened the county up to an unlimited number of new growers and eliminated or weakened every existing protection for neighbors or the environment.
The No On AF Committee was formed by an odd couple coalition that included Hal Wagenet of the MCBA, Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center, former cult communist and garbage czar Mike Sweeney, Supervisor John McCowen and Willits attorney Christopher Neary.
The Yes On AF Committee hired Sarah Bodnar, a self-anointed pr and social media expert with no previous political experience to be their campaign manager. Ms. Bodnar spent most of the Yes on AF campaign funds paying herself and several friends for such nebulous tasks as campaign consulting. The unpaid, but political savvy, veterans of the No on AF committee quickly spread the word that AF was bad news for everyone but the growers. No on AF quickly lined up dozens of endorsements from political, environmental, education and community groups. Yes on AF lined up endorsements from pot grower organizations.
Yes On AF even lined up an endorsement from iconic stoner Tommy Chong. As reported in the AVA (“Tommy Chong Lights Up Mendo”) the endorsement was an unintended self-parody of stoner culture. It provided the link that connected AF with the pot sharks circling Mendo. Instead of protecting the small farmer, AF was really a blueprint for corporate takeover of Mendo’s pot “industry.” AF was rejected by many truly small farmers and was trounced almost 2-1 at the polls.
The Failed Heritage Initiative (Measure AF) had the unintended consequence of waking up rural neighborhoods. Before Measure AF, the only people paying attention to the County effort to adopt an updated cultivation ordinance were the pot growers. Pot growers have gradually infiltrated almost every area of Mendo County, including suburban neighborhoods like Deerwood, El Dorado and Rogina that blanket the foothills on the eastside of the Ukiah Valley. Awakened by the threat of AF, the neighbors also woke up to the reality that the County was about to adopt regulations that would allow existing growers in any neighborhood to get a permit to validate their quasi legal enterprise.
The Board Of Supervisors signed off on the Initial Study (IS), the backbone of the environmental review required by CEQA, in October. The ordinance also amends the County zoning code which requires Planning Commission sign off. The Planning Commission hearings in Dec. and Jan. were packed with equal numbers of neighbors and growers. Unlike past pot meetings, everyone in attendance was well behaved and respectful. Maybe for that reason they were finally able to hear each other for the first time. Instead of fire breathing dragons, the growers came across mostly as the kind of people you would see standing in line at the supermarket. And instead of a bunch of zero tolerance pot haters, the neighbors came across as normal people concerned about the safety of their homes and families.
The main push back from the neighbors was to get commercial marijuana cultivation out of their neighborhoods. The Planning Commission agreed and recommended to the Board of Supes that commercial pot be banned from the RR-2 zoning district (rural residential two acres and less) but with a two year sunset period to allow for relocation. The battleground on the grower side was push back against the IS recommendation to prohibit any future permits in RL (rangeland) when new permits are allowed in 2020. Existing growers in rangeland and forestland can continue with a permit but future permits will mostly be limited to agricultural zoning. The Planning Commission decided to keep the prohibition on rangeland, but with a recommendation that the Supes consider making changes prior to new permits being available in 2020.
The Planning Commission recommendations were heard by the Board of Supes on Feb. 7. In a repeat of the Planning Commission hearings, the room was packed with growers and neighbors with the overflow filling a conference room and milling around in the lobby. And in a replay of the Planning Commission hearings everyone was uniformly respectful of other speakers, choosing to focus on advocating for their interest instead of attacking others.
After presentations from staff, Second District Supervisor and current Board Chair John McCowen, pointed out that the Planning Commission recommendation to exclude commercial cultivation from residential neighborhoods needed a lot of clarification since their recommendations only referred to RR-2 but there are numerous other residential zoning districts with smaller lots.
Supervisor Gjerde pointed out another part of the Planning Commission recommendation was to identify areas that were pot friendly already (Laytonville is always the first place that comes to mind) and allow an exemption for those areas. Supervisor Brown agreed with the creation of overlay zones for pot friendly areas but came out strongly for a ban in residential neighborhoods. (All of the eastside Ukiah Valley is in Supervisor Brown's District.) The Planning Commission also recommended a two year sunset to allow neighborhood growers to relocate. The two years would also allow time to identify areas where the ban would not apply. Which seems to be most of rural Mendocino County, as only the tonier neighborhoods of eastside Ukiah seem to have escaped the locust like influx of ganja growers.
The neighbors went first during public comment, making a compelling case for a return to an imagined Ozzie and Harriett style environment where children stayed outside playing until midnight and everyone felt free to walk all around the neighborhood without running a gauntlet of vicious dogs, speeding SUV's and hostile stares from the growers,
The so-called coalition letter pulled together some of the same odd couple participants from the No on AF campaign and a few more. The letter was signed by Hal Wagenet and Paul Trouette of the Mendocino County Blacktail Association and their attorney Chris Neary who sued Mendo County last year over the urgency ordinance on CEQA grounds. Ellen and David Drell, representing the Willits Environmental Center also signed on. Wagenet and Ellen Drell were in the forefront of the No on AF committee professing to be equally concerned for the environment, but perhaps for different reasons. Casey O'Neill of the Cal Growers Association and Julia Dakin of the Small Farmers Association also signed on. Other signers included Traci Pellar of the Mendocino Wildlife Association and Hannah Nelson, a Fort Bragg attorney.
Hal Wagenet stated during public comment that Chris Brennan would have signed the letter except for an impacted tooth. Brennan is a north county government trapper who lives surrounded by pot growers but has been very vocal in his opposition to the Heritage Initiative and in the attempt to convert the Adanac Ranch into marijuana ranchettes. As noted above, Will Parish covered Brennan's complaint about the Adanac Ranch.
Swami Chaitanya, aka William Winans, speaking during public comment, also said the Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association (MCIA) endorsed the coalition letter "with concern." Swami and the MCIA (which includes Emerald Cup impresario Tim Blake) were the main proponents and intended beneficiaries of the Heritage Initiative. As noted here previously, just about everyone but Pebs Tripett and the anti-tax pot growers currently suing Mendo County over the recently enacted pot tax have reached agreement on the future of marijuana regulation in Mendoland. Pebs has never seen a pot tax or regulation that she can support, at least not if it is meant to apply to her.
The coalition came out strongly in support of maintaining the prohibition on new cultivation permits in rangeland. And equally strongly in urging the Supes not to accept the Planning Commission recommendation to take a new look at the rangeland issue prior to new permits coming on line in 2020. The coalition supported the Planning Commission recommendation that no oak trees be cut down to allow marijuana cultivation and that an oak woodland protection ordinance and a grading ordinance be adopted before any new permits are issued in 2020. The letter also advocated for not allowing Three Acre Timberland Conversions to grow marijuana.
The Farm Bureau seems to have been part of the discussions that led to the coalition letter, but opted instead to send their own letter. The Farm Bureau letter makes it clear that they have concerns about an oak woodland protection ordinance and a grading ordinance. The perpetual Farm Bureau mantra is that they are over-regulated and taxed to death, concerns that are now being echoed by the pot farmers as they struggle to comply with state and local regulation.
The Coalition Letter expressed concern about the exclusion of marijuana cultivation from residential neighborhoods which will put more pressure on Ag land as growers rush to relocate. But if the ban in residential areas goes through the letter recommended extending the sunset period to three years and strongly supported the creation of overlay zones for pot friendly communities or neighborhoods. The Farm Bureau letter was right in line with these recommendations.
The Coalition and Farm Bureau both supported provisional permits based on the realization that the county is not going to be able to process several hundred or more applications in time for growing season which is starting now. Both signed off on the need for accurate data collection to help evaluate how the ordinance is working. And both signed off on the need for effective enforcement. In some cases the language of the two letters is word for word, supporting the idea that the Farm Bureau participated in developing the coalition letter before deciding to send their own.
Supervisor Brown wanted to know what the General Plan had to say about an oak woodland protection ordinance. Staff confirmed that it was one of many long dormant "action" items that had never been implemented. After clarifying that the future ordinance, if any did not have to be restrictive, Brown said she could support the recommendation. The grading ordinance was another matter. Brown maintained, and staff confirmed, that the County already has a grading ordinance although it is limited in scope. A letter from the local Resource Conservation and Development organization (formerly the soil conservation service) advocated for applying the coastal grading standards to inland Mendocino County. Supervisor Gjerde pointed out that the coastal regulations trigger a grading permit for almost any amount of soil disturbance. The Supes also cited the need to go through the State Water Board for pot permits. In the end the Supes gave direction for staff to identify any gaps in the current requirements for grading and report back but did not give direction for developing an ordinance.
The Supervisors also clarified to some extent what they meant by prohibiting commercial marijuana cultivation in residential zones, concluding that the ban applies to all residential lots in RR-2 and lower, except for areas which are approved for an overlay zone. Despite the coalition and Farm Bureau letters advocating for a three year sunset, the Supes, at Brown's insistence, decided to stick with two years.
Supervisor McCowen has a follow-up item on the Supes agenda for Feb. 14 and has written a lengthy memo recounting the direction the Supes gave on Feb. 7 and asking his colleagues and staff to clarify or confirm the direction from that meeting. Staff is then expected to bring the draft ordinance back to the Supes for possible adoption on March 7, just about the time this spring’s pot plants are going into the ground.