Humboldt County is grasping for ways to deal with marijuana permit seekers who have submitted incomplete applications but are proceeding with grows that violate commercial cultivation codes.
The dilemma of enforcing the county’s Medical Marijuana Commercial Land Use Ordinance was discussed at the May 9 Board of Supervisors meeting.
Supervisors ultimately directed planning staff to communicate with those in violation and attempt to negotiate solutions. Staff was also directed to identify the most extreme offenders and flag them for fines equating to double the taxation rates set forth in Measure S, the county’s marijuana taxation law.
That would amount to fines of $2 per square foot for outdoor grows, $4 per square foot for mixed light grows and $6 per square foot for indoor grows.
The discussion started with Planning Director John Ford telling supervisors that in reviewing permit applications and inspecting grow sites, the county is finding that they’re being developed, expanded and used for cultivation before permits are gained.
“The question is, what is the mechanism that would allow us to deem the site to be in compliance or to apply an appropriate penalty,” Ford continued.
The marijuana law enforcement workload is generally massive. The county is estimated to have over 8,000 grow sites and about 2,300 permit applications have been submitted. Only 125 applications have been deemed as complete.
During a public comment session, environmental law attorney Paul Hagen told supervisors that there will be a “big problem” if the county focuses enforcement on those who have submitted permit applications instead of the thousands of growers who’ve had no contact with the system.
Terra Carver of the Humboldt Growers Alliance recommended that the county be careful when carrying out enforcement.
“We request that the county be mindful that some of these applicants are trying to do the right thing by engaging in a very unknown and untested system and are now facing violations based on their effort to comply,” she said.
Carver said the county should distinguish “egregious violations” from minor ones and hold marijuana-related grading and building violations “to the same standard as any other grading and building violations that does not involve cannabis.”
Also during public comment, Blue Lake resident Kent Sawatsky said using Measure S tax revenue for anything other than enforcement is “a dream.”
Interim Sheriff Billy Honsal said he will indeed be asking for more Measure S money for enforcement. Saying that “the reward is greater than the risk and I want to turn those tables,” he said he wants to create a “multi-jurisdictional task force” to rein in growers who egregiously violate county code and environmental laws.
Supervisor Estelle Fennell, a member of the board’s ad hoc marijuana regulation committee, said the county needs to communicate with growers who want to comply and to use enforcement against those who snub the concept.
“I like the idea of a solution-oriented approach,” she said, with the first step being a notice of violation. “Have them come in, prove what’s right or wrong about their situation and then levy the fines accordingly for those who prove to be in violation – egregious violation, let’s say.”
Other supervisors agreed with that approach and with using the doubling of Measure S taxation rates as a yardstick for fines. The county is expecting that fines will be mostly applied to new grow sites, as that’s where the worst violations are being seen.
Ford said that some growers haven’t had any contact with his department after filing incomplete applications months ago. Those who haven’t initiated any activity on their applications for the last six months will be noticed that they have 30 days to complete them or they’ll be withdrawn.
Fennell said, “If you’re new and you haven’t submitted a complete application, I believe you need to have a talk with the director.”
Applause sounded when Fennell said that Ford is doing “a remarkable job.”
Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, the board’s other marijuana committee member, was absent due to being at his first meeting as a state coastal commissioner.