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County Notes: ‘Veg-Mod Hell’

The Board of Supervisors spent most of their Tuesday afternoon meeting discussing the County's extremely restrictive rules about “tree removal,” aka “vegetation modification,” for pot grow permits. At present the rules say that trees can't be removed unless they are dead or a safety hazard, and if a grower removes a single tree they have to prove that was the case, subjective as that may be. 

When Supervisor Ted Williams asked the Board's grape rep Glenn McGourty what the grape growing industry would look like with rules like those imposed on pot, McGourty replied, “It would be pretty small.”

The item under consideration was a slightly less restrictive “veg-mod” rule. As an example of how ridiculous the rule and its application have become, long-time local pot attorney Hannah Nelson described the “veg-mod hell” that one of her legitimate permit applicant clients, Ms. Teresa Cisco of Willits, has found herself in.

Hannah Nelson: “It's a sad story. She has really hung in there. Originally she and her husband had a 25-plant garden prior to the permitting process. 2500 square feet, outdoors. It was next to their house. They were following the water board rules and they entered this program [in 2017] and they hired an environmental scientist to come out and evaluate to make sure everything was good. They were told that the garden next to their house was too close to an outlet for their pond. So they moved over to an area that had been partially burnt. They didn't remove any trees to create that area. Eventually trees fell. They were told that the fallen trees could not be removed because the ordinance says ‘no tree removal.’ It doesn't say no standing tree removal. I kid you not. Additionally, they have dead trees existing and standing all over. But in the satellite image they were flagged because the satellite image did not show those trees as dead. I have another client who was completely burned out by a fire and the satellite image didn't show all the sticks and burnt things and they were flagged. But because Ms. Cisco’s garden was in a new location, and it was after the ordinance, because they moved the garden from here to several hundred feet away, that was no longer allowed. They were also told that a group of trees at a turnaround on their property where you could go to the garden or the house — it's relatively close in — they removed those trees for fire safety and management. Some of them were dead and some were not. They were told that it was to benefit the cultivation garden which was nearby because it might remove the shading. I had somebody calculate that the sun doesn't move that way and it didn't do that. But it still wasn't good enough. They were still in Veg Mod Hell. The trees have not been removed. Additionally, I have been told, Why haven't other dead trees been removed on their property? Well, I think the answer is pretty clear. When you have to go in an area and pass by dead trees, you are concerned about trees that are dead and starting to lean.”

Supervisor John Haschak: “In that case wouldn't this new less restrictive proposal give them some clearance?”

Nelson: “Not according to what staff presented today, because they moved their cultivation site and trees were removed even though it was for a different purpose. Staff does not believe that it was for that purpose. They lost the photographs. She had taken a picture with a cell phone at the time and the cell phone blew up and they didn't have cloud saving. They actually printed out the picture because they were being inspected by code enforcement for a different issue. Code enforcement dealt with them and had nothing to say about trees, nothing to say about anything. And she got rid of the picture! Didn't need it anymore! Well guess what? Now she needs it.”

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In the end they decided to have staff come back with a cannabis process discussion item at an unspecified future date.

In the afternoon they discussed tree removal at cannabis cultivation sites for hour after hour after which Supervisor McGourty concluded: “To the cannabis community, I just wanna let you know we’re working really hard to make this work. It’s not easy. And I’m not sure where all the problems are right now and it’s not just the Board that’s doing this, it’s also our staff and I think we’d be remiss not to recognize that the Mendocino Cannabis Department works pretty hard trying to get things, you know, legal, and I kind of agree with Supervisor Williams that maybe we have given directions at times that might not be as clear as they could be so we’re gonna keep working on this until we get it right.”

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Some locals, particularly a few stalwart pot permit applicants who attended last Tuesday’s Supervisors meeting, are giving the Supervisors praise for turning down County Counsel Christian Curtis’s proposal to spend $25k on an expensive outside law firm to “advise” the Board about the possible legal implications of handing out the state’s “equity grant” money to pot growers who can prove they were harmed by the war on drugs. Curtis actually told the board that the highly specialized firm he had selected was willing to give Mendo a discount on the legal opinion, hence the bargain basement cost of only $25,000. The alternative was to either ask the State Attorney General for an opinion that might take at least a year to get (but wouldn’t cost anything) or leave the question unanswered. (County Counsel has delivered a secret (“privileged”) memo to the Supervisors explaining why he thinks there’s some liability to the County, but the Board decided to keep that memo secret, saying to release it might create more liability.) The equity grant program is moving along at a glacial pace despite Curtis’s objections. So there’s a good chance that the program will be wrapped up by the time they get an opinion from the Attorney General. (They should be asking the legislative counsel’s office, not the Attorney General, because they should have vetted the state program before it was enacted. But maybe Curtis doesn’t know the difference.)

The Supervisors deserve no credit for denying Curtis’s proposal. It was preposterous on several levels and somebody should have told Curtis as much. But lately Curtis has essentially been running the Board meetings from his new perch in the Big Chair formerly occupied by Carmel Angelo, telling the board what they can talk about, what they can’t talk about, when they can talk about it, when they’ve overtalked about it, and even when they can take breaks. His often sketchy legal advice is too often taken as gospel by the board, perhaps because of the overlarge pay raise he incorrectly gave himself last year. Board members seem cowed by their attorney and are disinclined to complain, even if they wanted to.

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Supervisor Mulheren Is Optimistic About The County’s Failed Pot Permit Program (facebook post)

“Pretty early on in my term on the BOS after a long day of cannabis debate a friend saw me taking my daughter to ice cream in the evening and she rolled down her window and said “Keep your head up, prohibition lasted a hundred years!” 

Some people reference all of the laws and regulations will be changing and continuing to be made for at least 10 years (from 2016). If you’re in the industry in Mendo you’ve likely been in it for decades and you’ve already gone through a ton of changes. The work isn’t done, it won’t be done for a while. There are still a lot of changes happening, the State is still adjusting, Mendo is still adjusting, the national politics and of course the market is still (and will continue) to adjust. Just wanted to say keep your head up, there’s more work to do, stay engaged.”

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