The wrong way to plan for cannabis cultivation
On April 16, the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to direct Permit Sonoma to address the severe compatibility problems with cannabis cultivation in rural neighborhoods. Last year the supervisors publicly committed to amending the cannabis ordinance to fix these problems, but ultimately failed to do much.
The supervisors need to acknowledge the fundamental problem. The primary reason there are so many “problem sites” with cannabis cultivation is that they turned the planning process upside down. Even if all problem sites today were denied permits, there will be more applications for new problem sites in the future.
The proper way to proceed is to identify sites that are suitable based on a set of planning criteria, not identify sites where there may be problems. That is how all other planning is done. For example, in preparing the General Plan and Zoning Maps, planners identify those areas where specified uses are environmentally suitable and compatible with surrounding uses. Thus, we end up with identified commercial zones, industrial zones, multi-residential zones (apartments and condos) and residential zones. Those areas not so identified do not allow any of these uses.
Similarly, the county should study its environmental and land use information and identify locations where cannabis grows are suitable based on criteria such as:
• Areas where public water and other necessary public services are available including power, sewer, storm water drainage, etc.
• If not on public water, areas located in a groundwater basin where water use will not impact environmental resources.
• Areas served by adequate and safe road access.
• Areas remote from incompatible residential sites.
• Areas remote from public and private schools.
• Areas remote from public and private parks, children’s camps, trails and other recreation sites.
• Areas easily secured and accessible to law enforcement.
• Areas free of extreme or high danger of wildfire.
• Areas free of landslides, flooding and other natural hazards.
• Areas free of rare and endangered or sensitive plants.
• Areas free of historic and/or archaeological resources.
• Areas free of important wildlife habitat and corridors.
• Areas free of other identified incompatibilities.
Once areas meeting these criteria are identified and mapped, planners would normally do an assessment of how much suitable land can be projected as reasonably necessary to meet current and future demand (20 years for a General Plan).
The proposed suitable areas are then presented to the public in hearings, and after considering all public comment, the planners select those areas where permits for grows will be considered.
Individual proposals are then evaluated to make sure that they indeed meet all of the necessary criteria. They go through the Conditional Use Permit and California Environmental Quality Act processes where the public has an opportunity to provide comment and participate in public hearings.
This is how planning has always been done. The county’s failure to undertake the appropriate planning process is why we have problems with grows in unsuitable areas. The county has never previously done planning for any other land use by asking for the public to identify unsuitable or problem sites. They always do an analysis and pick areas that are most likely to be suitable. The county’s approach is like allowing anyone to locate a junkyard anywhere unless enough neighbors show up after the fact and complain.
These controversies could have been avoided if the county had undertaken the usual, normal planning process that is applied to all other land uses. The proposed Phase II compatibility planning process should follow the normal and appropriate planning process described above.
The supervisors should never have assigned the planning effort to Economic Development instead of Permit Sonoma. Economic Development does not have the experience or expertise to manage the land use planning for cannabis grows.
The county got into its public controversy dilemma because it falsely assumed that cannabis grows are “just agriculture.” That’s like saying pig farms and dairies are “just agriculture.”
Most of the remote places proposed for commercial cannabis cultivation would otherwise only accommodate what is called “extensive agriculture.” Perhaps a few cattle at best. The sites in the Mark West Watershed would not be suitable for vineyards or any other intensive agriculture. Most wouldn’t even support grazing.
Growers use imported soil and heated containers in commercial structures with artificial lighting, none of which is normal agriculture.
Once the county assumed cannabis production is the equivalent of a vegetable garden (or a potato patch, as one county official opined) and ignored the accompanying huge water use, fire hazards, multiple employees, traffic generation, pesticide use, noxious odors, crime, and a plethora of other impacts that of necessity accompany cannabis production, the planning process went awry.
To address adequately the compatibility problems with rural neighborhoods, the supervisors need to acknowledge the impacts and quit trying to fit the round cannabis peg in the square “just agriculture” hole.
Ray Krauss is a retired environmental planner who lives in the Mark West Watershed.
Craig S. Harrison is a retired lawyer who lives in Bennett Valley.