County Cannabis Ordinance: Reining in Existing Grows

February, 2016

Humboldt County is moving forward with regulating medical cannabis production with a final ordinance set to be passed as we go to print. With the language of the ordinance still being solidified by county planning staff, nothing is set in stone until the Board of Supervisors takes a final action. However, below is our best reading of the tea leaves as to where the Board stands as of press time (spoiler alert: it looks pretty decent):

•    No new operations in forestlands and incentives for cultivators operating in environmentally-sensitive locations (steep terrain, upper watersheds, too close to streams or wetlands, etc.) to retire, remediate, and/or relocate to flatter agricultural lands.
•    All operations must adhere to strict environmental requirements, including a prohibition on stream diversions from May 15 to October 31, prohibition of non-organic pesticides, prohibition of use of trucked water, and stream setbacks.
•    For commercial outdoor and mixed-light (a.k.a. “light-deprivation”) operations, tiered permitting will require more stringent, site-specific review for larger grows.
•    Operations between 500-5,000 sq. ft. will require a zoning clearance certificate (a ministerial permit—after all conditions are met).
•    Operations between 5,000-10,000 sq. ft. will require a special use permit, which provides an additional layer of oversight. It is handled by county planning staff,  much like a zoning clearance certificate, but affords notice to neighbors to give them the opportunity to provide feedback to staff. Planning staff, neighbors, or the public may request a formal hearing before the Planning Commission.
•    Operations greater than 10,000 will require a conditional use permit.
•    For indoor operations, all operations require zero net energy or a carbon offset to limit climate change impacts.
•    For industrial or commercial parcels, up to 5,000 sq. ft. with ministerial permit and up to 10,000 sq. ft. with conditional use permit.
•    For lands zones for agricultural production (AG and AE), the ordinance would cap operations at 5,000 sq. ft. limited to existing structures.
•    Grows up to 22,000 sq. ft. will be considered through a master planning process with accompanying EIR.
•    Set noise abatement standards for generators to a decibel level appropriate to avoid harm to wildlife and neighborhood disturbance, likely between 25db and 60db.

Overall, the ordinance is pretty decent—and given the myriad of stakeholders and the complexity of the issue—we’ll take pretty decent. Included are a number of hard fought battles (and victories), most notably no new operations in forest lands (including Timber Production Zone or TPZ lands)! With limited exceptions, new cultivation will not be considered until a thorough analysis of cumulative environmental impacts can be done at some point in the not-so-distant future.

How did we get here? To quote the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” In October 2014, California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) invited EPIC, the NEC, and SAFE to participate in an early stakeholders meeting for a draft ordinance that CCVH intended to submit to voters. For the next year, CCVH was hard at work developing an ordinance, issuing a half dozen draft ordinances, with environmental voices providing critical review and comment.

While CCVH was hard at work, the state got in the game. On September 11, 2015, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board passed a waiver of waste discharge requirements for commercial cannabis producers, the first real environmental regulation directly applied to cannabis. In Fall 2015, the State legislature passed a trio of laws to regulate medical cannabis production (AB 243, AB 266, & SB 642). These laws expressly gave the county permission to regulate commercial medical cannabis production and provided a deadline, March 1, 2016, by which counties were to promulgate local regulations. Just four days later, on September 15, 2015, CCVH decided not to run an independent voter initiative campaign and turned their ordinance over to the Board of Supervisors to use as a template.

The Humboldt County Supervisors were tasked with striking a balance between competing forces. If cultivators do not participate, no performance standards or environmental mitigations will be followed, which would not help attenuate the problems facing our watersheds and human communities. This is the crux of the issue within the development of Humboldt County’s ordinance—a sweet spot must be achieved that will maximize participation while providing enough oversight and environmental protection.

Collectively, we are in the process of ushering in a new paradigm for commercial cultivation of medical cannabis in Humboldt County. We are preserving local control, beginning to mitigate the adverse impacts of unregulated cannabis production, and providing a legitimate framework for legal economic activity that can benefit both farmers and the public.

Once the ordinance is adopted, the final environmental document will be circulated for public review and comment, and will be finalized in late February or early March. Stay tuned as the County develops a tax measure to ensure funding for enforcement, which will be a crucial aspect to the reform of marijuana laws and the end of prohibition.