Chris Gurr and Ann Marie Borges don't fit the cliched marijuana profile. They look like what they are, a respectable professional couple who got into the love drug business when cannabis became legal, or quasi-legal. It's the quasi that brought them a world of woe, that patented Mendo woe of incompetence basted in farce.
Gurr and Borges aren't laughing.
When the couple bought a perfect grow property on the Ukiah end of the Boonville Road they began the local licensing process, a process very much a work in progress with the rules seeming to change every time the county's supervisors met.
As if the rules weren't difficult enough to abide by, the neighbors were hostile. It was as if Gurr and Borges were an armed cartel grow or a gang of transient hippies whose heedless presence was annoying in the multitudinous ways only hippies can manage.
One neighbor was Sue Anzilotti, an non-uniformed employee of the Sheriff's Department.
In March of 2018 Acting Ag Commissioner Diane Curry and pot permit program administrator, since purged, told the Board of Supervisors that as far as she knew “only three” of the 734 pot cultivation applicants had suffered Fish & Wildlife raids — “which is not terrible,” she added.
And right there was one of many traps in the Mendo pot licensing program. Even if the grower did everything possible to comply with the rules, a Fish and Wildlife posse could ride in, pull up your plants and even arrest you.
Ms. Curry's "not terrible" wasn't terrible unless the legal Mendo permit a grower thought he possessed had not been denied but was stashed somewhere in Mendo limbo but suspiciously available to Fish and Wildlife, a famously unaccountable, weaponized state agency whose oversized teams of wardens seem to get big kicks out of raiding pot farmers known to be in the time-consuming licensing process.
Chris Gurr got the full Fish and Wildlife treatment on a hot day in August of 2017 when a Fish & Wildlife contingent appeared on his property. Placing the 61-year-old Gurr in handcuffs and leaving him to spend the next few hours in the full sun the great defenders of Mendocino County's disappeared fish and scarce wildlife cut down all his mature plants and ripped out dozens of other plants in the Gurr-Burgess hoop house. Gurr had shown his authorizing paperwork to the invaders, which they also promptly confiscated.
Mr. Gurr is a former computer business and franchise owner from Atlanta. Ms. Borges is a realtor from Willits but went to school in Altanta where she first met Mr. Gurr.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesman later said the Gurr-Borges 11-acre property was raided because they suspected a well was diverting water from a nearby creek, a common practice by grape growers, but a raidable offense for pot growers.
Fish & Wildlife Department Lt. Chris Stoots said the agency’s Watershed Enforcement Program — tasked to investigate, enforce and remediate environmental damage from cannabis cultivation on private land — had launched the investigation. Stoots said they had to act quickly and in force “when misdemeanors or felonies are committed in the presence of an officer. … The legal status of it or the political opinion of it has nothing to do with the burden people have to (protect) the environment and the fact that they’re obligated to follow environmental laws.”
At that time back in August of 2017, Mendo Ag Commissioner Curry said Gurr and Borges were working with County staff to address the potential water source issue and several other issues, such as greenhouse design. (Improper greenhouse design is not yet a felony as far as we know.) The owners seemed to “want to do whatever needs to be done to be in compliance,” Curry said, adding, “We had done our site inspection and things looked good,” noting the county had also issued a May 4 2017 document stating the status of the Gurr-Borges license. Curry had notified Fish and Wildlife several weeks earlier about the water source question as standard practice and was surprised the agency had raided Mr. Gurr without contacting her department first.
“I’m really concerned,” Curry said. “We want to get people doing the right thing, and if we don’t have support from all these agencies we’re just helping to keep people in the black market and creating all the things people don’t want like health and safety issues and environmental crimes.”
At the October 3, 2017 Board meeting, almost two months after the raid, Curry said she spoke to Fish & Wildlife's boss who told her that “he understood we had denied the application, but that’s not true.”
In fact, Curry and staff were still trying to finish all the unnecessarily complicated permitting paperwork that was required.
No denial had been issued.
The raid was conducted based on an allegation of illegal water diversion, Curry said, and “staff was out there and working with them. It was another surprise as to why that applicant was targeted.”
Ms. Curry, later abruptly ousted as Interim Ag Commissioner in charge of (among other duties) the County’s pot cultivation permit program, was surprised at the raid because in May she had issued Gurr & Borges an “application receipt” which said, in part, that “The garden at this site is considered to be in compliance, or working toward compliance, until such time as a permit is issued or denied.”
But the permit wasn’t given final approval because there were several minor snags in the process that were still unresolved.
On June 19, 2017, Gurr & Borges met with Commissioner Curry to complete an “extinguish and transfer” worksheet related to proving prior cultivation by Ann Marie Borges at a coastal location in the County.
At a June 28, 2017 Board of Supervisors meeting, several of Gurr-Borges’s neighbors complained about their grow site, saying that they didn’t like the traffic and associated activities and that there had been no history of pot growing in that area. They also didn’t think prior cultivation on the coast qualified as prior cultivation for Gurr-Borges' inland grow site.
On or about July 26, 2017 Gurr/Borges had hired a hydrologist, Donald G. McEdwards of Willits, to take samples from both the well and the creek in order to perform an extensive hydrology study. The samples were provided to Alpha Labs in Ukiah. Gurr & Borges were told the results would be available on or about August 10, 2017 — the very day of the Fish & Wildlife raid.
From the lawsuit: “On August 10, 2017 at approximately 10:30 a.m. a convoy of CDFW vehicles arrived at Plaintiffs’ property and agents with guns pointed immediately placed the Plaintiffs in handcuffs. Plaintiffs informed Steve White, the CDFW team leader, they had an application receipt from the County and were in full compliance with all County regulations. They also informed him that they were awaiting a report from Alpha Labs for tests of the creek water and the well water. The CDFW team claimed they believed the water was being diverted from the creek and proceeded to cut down and eradicate the plants, i.e., 100 plants growing indoors under a hoop and 171 plants growing outdoors in an approved location of 10,000 square feet. The garden was within County guidelines and took up approximately one quarter acre on the 11-acre farm.”
Rather than verify that the testing results were available that very day, and brandishing their weapons, Fish and Wildlife commenced destruction of the garden.
Gurr and Borges, after having the claim against the County unceremoniously denied, have now sued in federal court.
According to the Gurr-Borges suit, the County’s lead pot permit program architect, Supervisor John McCowen, wanted to modify the ordinance to disqualify Gurr-Borges as applicants by saying prior coastal cultivation didn’t count as prior cultivation.
Gurr-Borges subsequently modified their application, after the raid, to claim prior cultivation in Willits.
But, according to a letter Gurr-Borges got from Harindar Grewal, the Ag Commissioner who replaced Curry, and who was also abruptly fired without explanation and has an unlawful termination suit pending against Mendocino County, that prior Willits grow was in 1986-87.
Commissioner Grewal, using legalistic langauge which Gurr-Borges say was provided to him by County Counsel Matthew Keidrowski, denied the Gurr-Borges application on July 9, 2018, almost a year after the August 2017 raid when Gurr-Borges had been in full compliance with Mendo rules. Grewal/Kiedrowsky said the permit was denied because proof of prior cultivation had to be at the site where the applicant proposed to grow pot — an interpretation which has changed over time and is still in dispute.
From the Gurr-Borges lawsuit: “Because of a recent change to the Ordinance that impacted cultivation of cannabis at coastal zones of the County, on or about August 14, 2017 Plaintiff Ann Marie Borges met with Commissioner Curry and provided proof or prior cultivation from the town of Willits in the County, an area not included in the coastal zone.”
But that was four days after the Fish & Wildlife raid which removed their pot plants.
At the October 2017 meeting of the Supervisors, a month after the raid on Gurr-Borges had become public, several Supervisors and a number of pot growers complained about the raid and wondered why F&W wouldn’t at least check with Mendo to verify the permit application status before a raid.
The Supervisors had assumed, they said, that F&W had promised to check with Mendo before any further raids.
Mendo’s Code enforcement chief Trent Taylor, told the Board that as far as he knew Fish & Wildlife raids are based on calls to the state’s anonymous Cal-Tip line, so that growers with annoyed neighbors, whatever their permit status, are more likely to be raided than totally illegal outback growers who are far from any neighbors. And heavily armed and presenting a far more dangerous raid target for F&W's wannabe commandos than a law-abiding 60-year-old couple not far the pavement of the Boonville Road.
But the lawsuit claims that the “tip” was far from anonymous.
Gurr-Borges say that “false or improper claims and statements made by Mendocino County Sheriff's Department employee Sue Anzillotti, her associates, and other currently unknown Mendocino County officers and employees led to execution of the [Fish & Wildlife] search warrant” issued by a Mendocino County Superior Court judge. “This search resulted in a raid and seizure operations carried out by California Fish and Wildlife agents and employees on August 10, 2017.” (Mendo judges famously issue warrants no questions asked.)
The lawsuit claims that Ms. Anzilotti used her insider law enforcement system access to garner semi-private info about Gurr and Borges, and then conspired with or influenced Deputy County Counsel Matthew Kiedrowski and Supervisor McCowen to manipulate the rules to deny or delay the Gurr-Borges permit.
And, although not stated directly in the suit, the Fish and Wildlife raid may have resulted from the permit’s limbo status.
But Fish and Wildlife never mentioned the Gurr-Borges permit status in their public statements justifying their raid. Instead, they claimed that the raid was conducted because they had that “tip” that Gurr-Borges were illegally taking water from their creek.
The professional hydrologist analyzed the water being used on Gurr-Borges’s pot plants and concluded that they were using well water, not creek water.
If you’re confused about all of this legalistic posturing, the moving goalposts, and the timing, welcome to the convoluted world of pot permits in Mendocino County.
The Gurr-Borges lawsuit was filed in the US District Court in San Francisco on July 8, of 2020.
They allege that 1) their permit was irrationally and arbitrarily denied because of ill will and malice on the part of Mendocino County, 2) that Mendocino County officials McCowen and Kiedrowski conspired with neighbor Sue Anzilotti (and possibly others) to delay and deny their permit, and 3) because of the actions of Ms. Anzilotti, McCowen and Kiedrowski they were denied due process.
But the lawsuit does not mention Fish and Wildlife, the agency which seems most culpable, nor does it question the basis of the search warrant that Fish and Wildlife applied for and got from a Mendocino County judge.
The lawsuit includes considerable evidence that Gurr-Borges made extensive good faith attempts to obtain a pot permit and that the County should have at least been consulted by Fish and Wildlife before the raid.
But it doesn’t provide much beyond the County’s admittedly suspicious maneuvers to tweak the definition of “prior cultivation” to prove that there was a malicious conspiracy between Anzilotti, Kiedrowski and McCowen which led to the raid.
It’s hard to tell where all this will go, although it's obvious that Gurr-Borges were arbitrarily victimized in police state fashion.
It’s been a long time since Official Mendo has been sued in federal court for a conspiracy to deprive a resident of their civil rights. The last time we recall is when a gay man, Marc Tosca of Ukiah, successfully sued the Sheriff’s department for their laughably bogus raid on his Eagle Springs Ranch property west of Ukiah in late 1998. That one wasn’t settled until four years later in 2002 when the Sheriff’s department was forced to issue a public apology and the County agreed to grade Tosca’s seven-mile ranch access road.
Tosca got his apology, but his road was never graded.