Sonoma County set to consider cannabis policy changes to ease dispute between growers, neighbors

Sonoma County set to consider cannabis policy changes to ease dispute between growers, neighbors

Sonoma County supervisors will consider Tuesday revising the rules governing cannabis businesses, hoping to balance the competing interests of pot farmers and neighborhood activists who don’t want commercial grows near their rural homes.

The Board of Supervisors also is set to discuss opening the door to recreational cannabis sales in the county’s unincorporated areas, where dispensaries currently can only sell medical marijuana.

But the policy debate about outdoor grows will likely prove most contentious, as critics lobby for tighter restrictions and farmers push for more flexibility. Under a plan proposed by county staff, smaller pot farms would be subject to a more thorough permitting process than larger ones, while residents could seek special zoning designations to ban cultivation in their neighborhoods.

“I think the neighbors will walk away probably not as happy as they’d like to be, and that’s probably true of the industry itself,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s vice chairman.

Rabbitt said he’s looking forward to a “robust discussion,” though he’s still unsure whether land-use policy is the best way to steer pot farms toward sites where they’ll avoid strong neighborhood opposition.

Tuesday’s meeting comes four months after a marathon hearing where pro-pot advocates and residents opposed to cannabis cultivation in their neighborhoods lobbied supervisors to change the rules in their favor. Supervisors at the time indicated support for policy amendments that would address concerns on both sides.

After further analysis from staff and two supervisors, the ordinance amendments have since been vetted by the county Planning Commission in advance of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

The proposed policy changes would allow the five medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Sonoma County to begin recreational sales in line with California voters’ 2016 approval of Proposition 64.

Tim Ricard, the county’s cannabis program manager, said staff will make it “user friendly and fairly simple” for medical dispensaries to start selling recreational pot as soon as next month, should supervisors sign off on the proposal. But the ordinance amendments won’t change the maximum of nine dispensaries allowed in the unincorporated county, Ricard said.

Under the proposal, cultivators would need to get a land-use permit for grows on properties smaller than 10 acres in unincorporated zones where pot farms are currently allowed. Use permits typically require a lengthy and expensive process with extensive public outreach before they’re approved by county officials.

Grows on sites larger than 10 acres — considered less likely to be located near homes due to their size — would need a zoning permit, which entails a less arduous process.

Residents who don’t want pot grows near them would be able to lobby for a new zoning designation to exclude cultivation where it would otherwise be allowed.

Conversely, some limited areas where marijuana growing is now banned could seek a special zoning designation to permit it.

Supervisors also are set to consider extending the life of cannabis land-use permits from one year to five and zoning permits from one year to two, preventing cultivators from having to reapply as soon as they receive their first permit.

Alexa Wall, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, agreed with parts of the proposed changes, including extending permit lengths. She’s currently trying to get county approval for her own grow north of Penngrove, seeking a permit for more than year.

But Wall raised concerns over other aspects of the county proposal, such as the exclusion zones, which she called “bad policy.”

“It’s a permanent solution for kind of temporary issues, because what happens if neighbors change?” she said. “People move. They come and go. The fear that surrounds an operation now may not be there (later).”

Wall would prefer the county allow its “extremely rigorous” use permit process to dictate where cannabis farms are allowed, since county officials could use their discretion to veto an application amid stiff opposition from neighbors.

But to Bennett Valley resident Craig Harrison, a member of the group Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, the current proposal doesn’t go far enough.

He said pot farms are inappropriate on any unincorporated property smaller than 20 acres and that it’s premature for the county to delay the expiration dates on cannabis permits.

Harrison said supervisors signaled at the April hearing they would take neighbors’ concerns more seriously. However, he said, “What they said the county was going to do and what the county has done so far … were on two different universes.

“This is doing nothing but feeding cynicism on the ability of the county to even run this program, let alone do it responsibly.”

The proposal also would allow cannabis farms to be closer to public parks in some instances. Current rules require the property line of a cultivation site to be 1,000 feet removed from the property line of the nearest park, but the staff’s proposal would make room for a smaller setback provided through a use permit.

“You think of public parks and you think of neighborhood parks with swings and playgrounds, but this counts Sugarloaf, Annadel, Armstrong Woods — all of those very large parks,” Ricard said. “It’s for those areas of parks in which there are no trails, it’s very remote, the public doesn’t go there, but a property line happens to be adjacent.”

After clearing the first round of cannabis ordinance amendments, county staff plan to launch a more thorough analysis of neighborhood compatibility rules and other issues. That effort is expect to start in September and last up to a year and a half.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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