55+ Residents Participate in Supervisor Rabbitt’s Town Hall on Bloomfield cannabis permit

55+ Residents Participate in Supervisor Rabbitt’s Town Hall on Bloomfield cannabis permit

What happened at Supervisor Rabbitt’s town hall on 1/11/21 is rare.  It happened because the Bloomfield neighborhood went to great lengths to create a petition with hundreds of signatures, analyzed the issues in the ministerial application and had a supervisor interested enough to hear what the neighborhood had to say.  A ministerial cannabis application doesn’t allow for this.  As Tennis Wick, PRMD Director, said last night, ministerial applications “…are a quantitative process that is designed to be quick.”  

Other neighborhoods being invaded by ministerial cannabis permits have not been so lucky. Other supervisors and the ag commissioner have pushed for ministerial permitting to enable them to get away with zero thinking, zero responsibility and zero neighborhood input.  

How did we get here?  In short, cannabis growing originally required a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) which is discretionary, offers a public hearing, requires a CEQA report and could take over a year to approve.  The former ag commissioner, with extensive help from the cannabis industry, put forward ministerial (zoning) permits to satisfy the industry’s demands for quicker permitting everywhere and the county’s desire for revenue.  They are designed to be simple, with no inspections, and if the application meets the standard, then it’s approved…quickly.  Think rubber-stamped.

The county broke from their historical planning process via Permit Sonoma and instead had Economic Development involved who does not have the experience or expertise to manage the land use planning for cannabis grows and is predisposed to focus on county revenue generation.  The county got into its public dilemma because it falsely assumed that commercial cannabis grows are “just agriculture.”  That’s like saying pig farms and dairies are “just agriculture.”

Where is cannabis permitting headed?  The county is releasing a draft amendment to the General Plan this month that is expected to reduce or eliminate the few remaining conditions that try to protect neighborhoods today (setbacks, grow size, visibility, CEQA, fire safe roads…).  This will greatly exacerbate the neighborhood compatibility problems because it will allow cannabis to impact many more neighborhoods.  

Andrew Smith, Ag Commissioner, was on the town hall Zoom meeting.  He advocates for the cannabis grower and the industry at the expense of neighborhoods.  He calls the applicants his “clients” and he refers to the concerned neighborhoods as NIMYs.  These are just two examples of his veiled positions from the town hall:

  • Smith does not issue violations even when there is ample evidence to support them.  Instead of issuing violations, he applies discretion and uses neighborhood supplied evidence to warn the applicant.  As example, we heard Smith last night making excuses for the applicant failure to read the application regarding a witnessed ground disturbance in Bloomfield.  Smith’s excuse is fabricated given that the second paragraph below the applicant’s signature states, in bold and underlined text, that a “Zoning permit must be approved before any work begins.”  There is also a required “intake appointment” where details like this are pointed out to the applicant by the ag. department. 
  • Smith’s claims about water usage being “…similar to wine grapes…,” are misleading at best.  He fails to say that cannabis is grown in pots that are above ground and in hoop houses with up to three crop yields per year.  This requires 1.1M gallons of water per acre compared to 65,000-162,000 gallons per acre of wine grapes.  A Napa County report cites cannabis’ significant water demand.  The Bloomfield application estimates 1m gallons of water being used annually.

The problems with the Penalty Relief Program were also discussed.  It sounds like Supervisor Rabbitt is in favor of sunsetting the program.  There are many examples of growers violating codes with no enforcement response or violations being issued by the county.  The program is failing and needs to go away according to Rabbitt. 

Fire safe roads were discussed and Rabbitt said he supports aligning Sonoma County code with the CA regulations going forward which is in contrast to the other supervisors.

Biotic resources were also discussed and the need for further study on the proposed Bloomfield site. 

The Bloomfield ministerial application is for 80k sq ft of cultivation which is way above the 10k sq ft per 10 acre minimum parcel size.  Smith reportedly communicated this to the applicant and let him know his project scope doesn’t qualify for a ministerial permit.  He said it looks like the applicant is attempting to piece-meal the project which is in conflict with CEQA.

There was a short discussion on water use and the neighborhood concerns about ground water overdraft.  The county suggested rain-water capture as a recommended way to increase water access.  This seems in direct conflict with California Water District regulations.

The county admitted they currently have no way to enforce pre-permit work which allows the applicant to violate the code at will without threat of reprisal. 

A number of questions regarding issues were asked by the neighborhood included:

  • Odor – why do we have regs for indoor and not apply them to outdoor?  Odor should stop at the property line.  It’s measurable.  Require the grower to deal with it. 
  • Exclusion zones – Why isn’t the county allowing exclusion zones like Lake County?