Sonoma County swung and missed three times in its effort to establish a successful cannabis ordinance. The board of supervisors (BOS) recently approved a temporary moratorium on permitting because it realized its flawed policy enables illegal operations. The BOS should hit pause by extending the moratorium and get the policy right for both commercial growers and neighborhoods.
The cannabis ordinance is flawed, an understandable situation when regulating a new industry. The county is preparing an Environmental Impact Report to guide its update of the ordinance, including where and where not to grow cannabis to avoid impacts on residents and the environment.
CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requires an environmental analysis before allowing commercial cannabis cultivation, including analyses of water, fire risk, odor, traffic, and aesthetics. Sonoma County circumvents this by approving operations of 10,000 square feet under a ministerial process without environmental review. It further corrupts this process by allowing multi-tenant grows of 43,560 square feet on single parcels. Such large grows need full CEQA review, including impacts on neighbors.
The ordinance’s Health and Safety clause forbids cannabis operations from being a nuisance, including subjecting neighbors to odor, traffic, noise, and/or danger. Many grows would be less contentious if the county required larger separations to neighboring parcels. Yet the county rarely invokes this provision, and allows operations within 100 feet of neighbors.
State law regulates access roads to new development and requires safe concurrent civilian evacuation and ingress by fire engines. Yet the county circumvents and ignores these rules for commercial cannabis operations.
California’s Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) oversees all cannabis cultivation and issues licenses required to legally sell cannabis. DCC recently told Sonoma County to evaluate the cumulative impacts countywide for all current and future grows. This includes analyzing cumulative impacts from ground and surface water diversions on underlying aquifers, including effects on stream-related resources, endangered species, and all users. DCC is requiring the county to determine with certainty that the cumulative impacts will not cause declines in groundwater.
Our severe drought prompted the county to lobby the state to decrease mandated new housing units due to water limitations. Yet at a recent supervisors hearing, Permit Sonoma identified no cumulative water impacts from cannabis grows whereas in reality the county failed to analyze this. The county should have done this six years ago while developing the original ordinance.
In response to the DCC’s request for the status of our groundwater basins, the county claimed—without analysis—that cultivation in groundwater zone 2 (with major natural recharge) is “unlikely to cause a decline in groundwater elevations or deplete groundwater resources.” The county failed to mention that wells are going dry in areas classified as groundwater zone 2. Some growers are illegally pumping water from city hydrants and transporting it for cannabis cultivation. We need surveillance and genuine enforcement.
DCC also wants analyses of cumulative odor impacts and asked how our ordinance avoids significant odor impacts. The county well knows that cannabis emits overpowering odors that can disrupt the lives of neighbors. Yet it ignores science and promotes planting vegetative screens or spraying chemical deodorants into the air. The county knows these are bogus solutions. Real-life experience and experts have concluded that distance is the only mitigation for odor.
Our leaders should take their heads out of the sand and credibly implement and enforce the current ordinance. For now, we need a moratorium on new and renewed permits. In the long term, this will benefit growers and neighborhoods alike. If cannabis is great for Sonoma County, it will still be great in two years. What’s the rush?
— Deborah Eppstein, PhD, is a retired scientist living in Sonoma County who now devotes her time to environmental issues. Craig S. Harrison is a retired lawyer living in Bennett Valley.