Keep commercial marijuana away from our parks (Kenwood Press)

Keep commercial marijuana away from our parks (Kenwood Press)

By Deborah A. Eppstein and Craig S. Harrison

We are shocked by proposed changes to the Cannabis Ordinance that would reduce buffer zones around parks to allow commercial marijuana cultivation on park borders. We think the current 1,000-foot setback from parks to neighboring parcel boundaries should be increased to 2,000 feet. Instead, on Aug. 7, the Board of Supervisors may decide to measure setbacks from the site of the grow instead of the parcel boundary, acquiescing to heavy lobbying by big growers. This would undermine the protection of our parks.

Why is the county rushing to authorize marijuana cultivation next to our parks and homes? It should employ the precautionary principle, as for any new business model. If transition from illegal to legal grows proceeds smoothly, the county can then reconsider modifications on where grows are permitted, based on real-life experience of what works and doesn’t for the community. Instead, the prevailing mood seems to be speed and greed.

Sonoma County is blessed with parks. Hood Mountain Regional Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Jack London State Park, Trione-Annadel State Park, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, and Taylor Mountain Regional Park are treasures. Why endanger them?

Robust buffer zones improve fire protection, facilitate finding illegal grows, and maintain the parks’ undeveloped nature with a transition zone. Allowing commercial grows to operate close by undermines enforcement and the safety of park visitors, who might encounter violence both from illegal grows masquerading as legal ones or legal grows near park boundaries. In rugged areas, it is common for hikers to wander beyond park boundaries. On Cougar Lane, which abuts Hood Mountain, growers often patrol their land with firearms and attack dogs. This intimidates neighbors and potentially hikers in the park.

Hood Mountain is a prime example of the need for strong buffer zones in remote areas for fire protection, where access is often only through adjacent private property (i.e. the parcels where marijuana growing is currently banned). During the October fires, a grower on such a parcel was harvesting his (illegal) marijuana crop when fire was barreling down Hood Mountain towards Cougar Lane. His priority was to save his crop, not save the park or the homes (he did not live there), and he moved boulders to block the top of Cougar Lane. Fire trucks were unable to pass until bulldozers arrived to clear the road. The Press Democrat recently wrote, “Hood Mountain stands like a battle-scarred sentinel, one of several well-known peaks that serve as silent memorials to blazes that burned hottest on steep, rugged terrain.” Were it not for the access via the private properties on Cougar Lane, the fire would have burned unchecked with much greater destruction both to Hood Mountain as well as residential homes.

Our parks nurture our riparian corridors. The headwaters of Matanzas Creek, which flows through Bennett Valley to join Santa Rosa Creek, is in North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park. Santa Rosa Creek begins on Hood Mountain, and eventually enters the Laguna de Santa Rosa and the Russian River. Buffer zones around these parks are essential to protecting and preserving Sonoma County’s sensitive watersheds.

Marijuana cultivators often use anticoagulant rodenticides, herbicides, petroleum fuels, nitrates, phosphates, and chlorinated hydrocarbons. The marijuana industry has historically flouted most laws. The county would be foolish to believe that all permitted operators will comply with environmental rules. The ordinance gives growers a 24-hour “heads up” before conducting an inspection. Illegal chemicals such as deadly carbofuran can be hidden until it is too late for the watershed. Assault weapons will also magically disappear before scheduled inspections.

Who wants to sacrifice protections for our parks and watersheds? Not local residents, neighbors, or park visitors. The culprits are Big Marijuana. CannaCraft Corporation wants marijuana grown near Hood Mountain Park. The Chicago-based multistate corporation Justice Grown purchased land in Bennett Valley in 2017, adjacent to North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, where it has a large grow.

These grows next to parks began illegally, largely because of their remoteness. Park advocates and residents were denied an opportunity to oppose them. The marijuana corporations made imprudent business decisions by choosing locations driven by the clandestine nature of their illegal operations, and now want to change rules to grandfather their operations that would never have been approved in a normal permitting process.

Big Marijuana is doing what the wealthy and powerful always do. Public officials should not allow them to compromise our precious parks.

Ironically, the supervisors have decided to place a sales tax increase on the November ballot to fund regional parks. Why should anyone support this tax increase if the supervisors don’t care enough about our parks to protect them from commercial marijuana?

Deborah Eppstein Ph.D. is a scientist and retired biotech entrepreneur who lives on Cougar Lane. Craig S. Harrison is a retired lawyer who lives in Bennett Valley.

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