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Rancho Nirvana

I first met the mostly young, long-haired new growers at a meeting of the Rancho Navarro Association (RNA) Board of Directors two years ago, where their small children wandered about the glass-doored Clubhouse. Most long-time residents in our 135-lot subdivision are retirees, and a number were rumored to have cultivated cannabis to supplement the meager-income jobs within commuting distance of our rural enclave three miles northwest of the General Store. A member of the Board, who supervises maintenance of the Association’s paved roads, had written a letter to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors complaining that cannabis growers were a menace to our community. Generator noise and traffic were long-standing complaints, but opposition crystalized when open cultivation by permitted growers blossomed in 2016. With a few moderate exceptions the thirty-plus participants declared that they were willing to make concessions in order to live among us or that the newcomers should leave because our bylaws prohibited commercial businesses.

Since then, one grower was denied permission to use the Clubhouse pool and had the tires of his pickup stashed by an old-timer. Code Enforcement, which has an intimidating police presence, was called to the Ranch for offenses like leaving lights on at night. A Ranch-initiated proposal before the County Board of Supervisors to prohibit cannabis in our subdivision was defeated when growers presented a petition opposing it. The following July, anti-cannabis candidates swept onto the RNA Board. Meeting in private, they consulted attorneys in an attempt to amend our bylaws to allow stiff fines for tree cutting or cultivating plots larger than a specified area. The legal bill was $16,065. Their proposal was vetoed by residents who feared abuse of power by the volunteer RNA Board. 

Letters to the Editor appeared in Anderson Valley Advertiser: 

“Dear Sheriff Allman… This is a RESIDENTIAL neighborhood. The situation seems to be out of control. We don’t need drunk transients and commercial drug farms destroying our neighborhood and scaring the crap out of us. I’ve got two young kids and want them to feel safe here. Please help.” 

Clandestine cultivation remained widespread, but in the face of falling cannabis prices half of the permit-pending growers put their properties up for sale. Fearing a costly legal battle, I ran for the RNA Board this summer. With the aid of a denunciation of cannabis mailed with the ballots, Board-backed candidates topped the voting and I won the only open seat. At my first Board meeting I was appointed chairman of the Land Use Committee, which grants approval for tree-cutting and structures. 

A rumor spread that B., a grower, planned to clearcut a swath of redwoods in order to place four pre-fabricate sheds in woods in the front of his property. For a few weeks of the year he would dry cannabis there. I convinced B. to place the sheds in an open area and promised to fight for their approval as precedent for future accommodations with growers. Three of the five committee members voted to deny permission because the project constituted expansion of a commercial business. 

Since the vote split, the issue went before the Board. I made my presentation to it on August 24: “A sign in front of a Ranch residence reads in English, Spanish, and Arabic: No matter where you are from, we’re glad you are our neighbor. This philosophy of tolerance is common in rural communities like ours, where we depend on each other. O. owns a towing service, L. makes furniture, and G.’s wife runs a commercial kitchen. For many years vacation rentals brought traffic onto the Ranch, Z. ran a backhoe excavation service, M. operated an auto repair shop, and U. did tree milling with heavy equipment and noise. Chiropractors see patients on Bald Hills Road, L. sells figs from his farm, and there’s a cattle ranch on Appian Way. None of these commercial businesses has been challenged, because they are our neighbors.

“Due to the expense of complying with 26 government agencies, B. and the other six permitted or pending-permit growers tend to cultivate near the small user limit of 10,000 square feet. But they aren’t the only ones. There are 31 greenhouses and roughly 50 cannabis grows in Rancho Navarro. Our little development is renowned among stoners as Rancho Nirvana, producer of high quality cannabis and the jewel of the Emerald Triangle. To circumvent aerial surveillance, un-permitted growers erect greenhouses and claim to be cultivating flowers. Their outdoor plots are less extensive, but current Google maps reveal illegal farms similar in size and number to the permit ones on the Ranch. Google Earth shows about the same number of greenhouse-based farms ten years ago as there are permit farms now. While satellite imagery indicates large grows were uncommon in the early days of the Ranch, anecdotes from long term residents suggest that cannabis cultivation, some by vocal critics of the new growers, has been prevalent for decades. Our tightly knit community allowed it in the spirit of live-and-let-live. 

“So why bother? Why spend eleven secret sessions of the RNA Board of Directors and $16,000 in legal fees to expel B. and the other permit growers from the Ranch? Is it the threat of a lawsuit over failure to enforce our rules? Respected land use attorney N. argued, “a restrictive covenant may be unenforceable as a result of repeated, unopposed violations where there has been acquiescence in an activity that could otherwise be construed as being restricted … ubiquitous cultivation activities both historically and as existing at present … would support a finding of changed circumstances, rendering a sudden reversal of policy as inequitable and unenforceable.

“Is it the water? Western Groundwater Surveyors certified that B.’s well is not connected to the Rancho Navarro aquifer. The county requires permitted growers to meter their wells and restricts water use under specific circumstances. Illegal growers, who far outnumber permit ones, operate under no restrictions. As a first step toward regulation, I propose that all cannabis growers with more than twenty-five plants be asked to submit quarterly water meter readings to the RNA Land Use Committee.

“Is it because if we don’t stop it now, agri-business will engulf the Ranch? Our hilly terrain is unsuited to large scale agriculture. With competition from places like the Central Valley, cannabis prices are expected to decline by fifteen percent a year over the coming years. All of our permit growers including B. report operating at a loss. Since the dawn of language, demagogues have used the Big Scare to turn one group against another. Seventy-seven years ago my grandfather was expelled from the farm he spent his lifetime building because small-minded people said little yellow men were about to overrun California.

“We can’t touch illegal growers who hide behind tall fences, the lumber company that cuts down redwoods and poisons tan oaks on our borders, or the commercial tree farm a hundred yards to the south with three times the cultivated area of all of our permit cannabis farms put together. So we act like schoolyard bullies, picking on an East Target, an E.T who is different and can’t fight back. We ought to stop building walls against our neighbors and instead meet together to resolve our common problems. Personable and willing to compromise his dream house in order to get along with us, B. is an asset to our community. We need not treat him as an alien and should welcome him instead.”

The Board remanded the project to the Land Use Committee for a decision based on the merits of the project rather than the commercial business aspect. One committee member resigned in protest, and another petitioned the Board for my removal as chairman. Two others expressed opinions in favor of the project. The Board called a special meeting to decide my tenure and approval of B.’s proposal. On the former issue I made the following statement: “When Willian Lloyd Garrison denounced slavery in 1831, he was in the minority. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated women’s right to vote in 1848, she was in the minority. When Thurgood Marshall called for the racial integration of public schools in 1935, he was in the minority. All of these opinions—which were contrary to the law at that time—became the majority because the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. What you are deciding is not a question of conforming to RNA ByLaws. They are open to different interpretations, as past precedents have shown. You are deciding whether expressing opinions contrary to the prevailing mindset of the Association is allowed. The question is whether, in suppressing the minority, the RNA Board of Directors will violate the principles of the Constitution of the United States.” 

The six other Board members voted to remove me as Land Use Committee chairman.

After a strenuous debate, the Board unanimously approved B.’s project, which I hope will serve as a model for future compromises on cannabis.

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