County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills title=
The county Board of Supervisors this week approved a zoning permit for 87 acres of outdoor cannabis on this property at the western end of Sta. Rita Hills wine country. It is the largest “grow” approved to date in the county. (Courtesy photo)
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By Melinda Burns

A zoning permit for SFS Farms, 87 acres of outdoor cannabis cultivation at the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills, the county’s most successful wine region, was approved by the county Board of Supervisors this week with few concessions to the neighboring vintners.

SFS Farms, owned by investors in Colorado and Manhattan Beach, is the largest “grow” approved by the county to date. If it were up and running today, it would be one of the largest cannabis operations in the U.S.; 87 acres is about 65 football fields’ worth of pot.

“I do favor large-size grows,” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who represents the Santa Maria Valley, said at Tuesday’s “virtual” hearing, where, for the first time in more than a year, all five supervisors sat together at the dais, without masks.

“It’s easier to keep an eye on 50 grows than 250 grows.”

Dan Gainey, the owner of the Gainey Vineyard just east of and downwind from SFS Farms; and Ron and Chad Melville, who own a vineyard next to Gainey’s and a wine tasting lounge a mile northeast of SFS Farms, were asking the board to overturn the county Planning Commission’s earlier approval of the SFS Farms operation. Short of that, they wanted the board to cut down its size and require a 500-foot setback from their grapes.

Speaking for the owners, Kurt Ammann, general manager of the Melville Winery, told the board it would be “irresponsible” to approve a permit for SFS Farms. Noting that the Sta. Rita Hills are “one of the best areas in the world to grow grapes,” Ammann said Chad Melville “feels very strongly that the odors from this ‘grow’ are going to have a significant impact on our outdoor tasting ... he has a really hard time with the board approving something that will wind up in litigation between the two neighbors.”

“Inevitably, we will not be able to operate at our current location,” Ammann said.

The vintners fear that the “skunky” smell of so much pot will drive tourists away; and they believe that “terpenes,” the volatile chemical compounds released by marijuana plants, will “taint” their premium grapes, Amman said. While conceding that there is conflicting research on the effects of “terpene taint,” he asked the board to conduct an independent study before allowing such a large “grow” and “seeing how it turns out.”

In all, applications for 900 acres of cannabis cultivation have been submitted to the county for the wine country between Lompoc and Buellton.

Larry Conlan, an attorney for SFS Farms, recalled this month’s ruling in the Busy Bee’s Organics case, in which a Superior Court judge found that the board had amply considered the impacts of the smell of cannabis and the concentration of cannabis operations during environmental review for the cannabis ordinance. The judge, Conlan noted, found no evidence that cannabis odors or terpenes posed a threat to other farms.

“That decision should give this board a lot of comfort in defending this ordinance and this project,” he said.

In the end, Lavagnino suggested that SFS Farms voluntarily provide a larger setback from the Gainey Vineyard and plant a row of trees and bushes between the two properties. SFS Farms agreed to put in the landscaping and set back its marijuana plants 150 feet from the property line, or 100 feet farther than the 50-foot setback required under the county’s permissive cannabis ordinance.

“I’m appreciative,” Ammann said.

The county Board of Supervisors this week approved a zoning permit for 87 acres of outdoor cannabis on this property at the western end of Sta. Rita Hills wine country. It is the largest “grow” approved to date in the county. (Courtesy photo)


No odor controls

The board’s vote on Tuesday was 4-1, with Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents much of the Sta. Rita Hills, voting “no.” Hartmann has long favored amending the ordinance to require a more restrictive zoning permit for all cannabis, called a “conditional use permit.” A CUP would allow the board to require odor controls, limit the size of “grows,” and create buffer zones so as to avoid conflicts with “legacy” farms. The board majority vetoed the idea last year.

On Tuesday, Hartmann called SFS Farms “a gargantuan grow” and said she did not think the county should be giving “windfall profits to a few.” What’s more, SFS Farms would be operating with no odor controls in the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally-designated American Viticultural Area, Hartmann said, adding, “I think that’s really unjust.” The prevailing winds, she said, already carry the smell of cannabis from a handful of existing operations up the Santa Ynez River and into town.

“The provisions of the ordinance strait-jacket the board,” Hartmann said.

Even as he voted in favor of SFS Farms, board Chairman Bob Nelson, who represents the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills, said he would have preferred a conditional use permit requirement for cannabis “across-the-board.”

“I’m not convinced that this project will not have an effect on Melville,” he said. “The risk is on the winemakers. I really sympathize with him. There’s a lot of unknowns out there … He’s struggling with the question mark of whether he will be able to continue in the future.”

Supervisor Das Williams, a chief architect of the cannabis ordinance along with Lavagnino, voted against any blanket requirements for conditional use permits last year, including a scaled-down proposal, proposed by Hartmann, that would have applied only to cannabis cultivation in the Sta. Rita Hills. Williams’ district includes the Carpinteria Valley, where neighborhoods must contend with the stench of cannabis from greenhouses with open roof vents.

On Tuesday, Williams defended his stance with a pointed reference to “people” (not the Melvilles, he said) “who are appealing every single project, less based on nuisance and more based on an ideological issue or a desire to fight the battle in every corner.”

 “The consequence is we don’t have a CUP in every case like this,” Williams said. “Some restraint in combat could lead to better policy.”

Ron and Chad Melville fear that the “skunky” smell of cannabis will drive tourists away from their winery, shown here off Highway 246. (Photo taken from a presentation to the County Board of Supervisors)


No coming to terms

In the course of Tuesday’s hearing, Ammann and Conlan gave the board different versions of why their efforts to reach a settlement had failed. Ammann said they had tried to negotiate an agreement in which the vintners would not be sued if their pesticides accidently drifted onto the field of marijuana at SFS Farms. He said representatives of SFS Farms had told the vintners they could be liable for between $50 million and $100 million if that happened.

No agreement was possible, Ammann said, because SFS Farms would not accept any terms that ran with the land and applied to future operators. It wasn’t clear to the vintners, he said, whether SFS Farms planned to run the operation or sell it to someone else.

“Entities can change very quickly,” Ammann said.

Conlan told the board that “Gainey wanted a complete absence of cannabis on this property.”

“The Melville side walked away from the table,” he said. “… We’re more than happy to coordinate on farming. We do believe that the landscaping mitigation would do a lot to address their concerns about terpenes and odor. SFS Farms is not interested in litigation.”

Several vineyards are downwind from SFS Farms, south of Highway 246; the zoning permit for SFS Farms requires a 150-foot setback from the Gainey Winery.

“Dessert” flavors

SFS Farms is owned by Drew Webb of Estes Park, Colo., and Jason Kiredjian of Manhattan Beach. It will be run by Justin El-Diwany, who is presently growing cannabis on three acres southwest of Buellton. On Tuesday, El-Diwany told the supervisors that the SFS Farms location was not suited to the “skunky”- smelling strains of cannabis.

“We’re committed to growing the citrusy and dessert-flavored strains,” he said.

SFS Farms is leasing the land for its operations from Bob Campbell, the owner of a 965-acre historic ranch at 4874 Hapgood Road. Campbell runs cattle and grows vegetables on the rest of his property.

Under the permit that was approved on Tuesday, the cannabis operation will be limited to two three-week harvests per year. The marijuana will be grown in an open field and not under hoops; upon harvesting, the plants will be transported to northern California for processing.

SFS Farms is by no means the largest cannabis operation in the county review pipeline. A 147-acre operation is proposed on Drum Canyon Road, northwest of Buellton; and there are four proposals for the Cuyama Valley that range from 105 acres to 200 acres in size.

Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.

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fitz Jun 24, 2021 10:12 AM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

I think the homeowners along the 246 and in Buellton need to be compensated for the awful odors that waft through there on a regular basis. It seems to start at the grow behind Pence, gets really bad by Windmill Nursery and then into the neighborhoods. Then a different stink comes from the grows along the Santa Ynez River and into Buellton via their beautiful (and now stinky) park. Don't go to any of these places as the breeze picks up at noon. So sad.

SantaBarbaraObserver Jun 24, 2021 11:44 AM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

What about manure or rotting fruit? Do you have the same feeling you have towards them, or the diesel exhaust or pesticides that the farmers spew all day, everyday? Or are you only concerned with this particular crop and not any other? We know the answer. For many people 80 years of being brainwashed into thinking that marijuana is a killer has ruined your ability to be objective or even honest. Just try and be open about the situation and dont try and make up fake reasons like the DARE crowd has done in Carp...

PitMix Jun 24, 2021 01:07 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

SBO, I haven't noticed any of these smells you refer to in my drives through Buellton and Carpinteria. I do notice the pot smells now on my drives past those farms. I think your false equivalence is a desperate attempt to support this industry.
Nothing will change until the BOS changes. Unfortunately we lost our chance to change them when Das retained his seat.
I wonder if the feds will step in because CA is clearly producing more pot than can be consumed in the state. Is it against federal law to export this crop to other states?

MarcelK Jun 24, 2021 08:42 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

Most of B's comments are about liberals that we must get rid of in the next election, often with rather tenuous connections to the subject at hand. Monique Limón is a frequent target. I don't know what she ever did to him, nor Joan Hartmann, who is one of the most thoughtful pols around. I can't recall seeing him call for dumping Steve Lavagnino, the other "Doobie Brother" but not a liberal.

xpander Jun 24, 2021 11:38 AM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

Epic...pretty neat to see this industry *growing* and sprawling at such a scale. Never thought I would see it in my lifetime. Glad w e have finally pulled our heads out of the sand and recognized the many legit applications for this plant. It's funny, I'm sure the same armchair warriors wouldn't have peep to complain about if, say, this same thing was a grape grow for the wineries. Let's move on and forward - Cannabis is here to stay, just like the rest of the long list of legal vices.

a-1624562752 Jun 24, 2021 12:25 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

funny you bring up the "emerald triangle"-- there are NO grows bigger than six acres in those Counties- and most are 1-2 acres at most. The cannabis-industrial-complex has done such a SNOW JOB on the County, that people who used to be environmentalists who critiqued every simple project on Ag land or view corridor plans, remain oddly silent. The industry has manipulated what used to be good land use review into a narrative that anyone who questions the implications of one of this major corporate industrial grows is "anti-pot" and so everyone remains silent. The $$ they tout in taxes is a FRACTION of the general fund but those facts merely get in the way of the mythical narrative spun by BIG POT [remember, the smaller growers were supposed to be the ones to benefit from Prop 64-- ha they are all driven out of SB County now\

SantaBarbaraObserver Jun 24, 2021 01:21 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

Byz was responding to my post where I mentioned the smell of manure. He and you both seem confused by the fact that manure is a product of livestock in addition to being used as a fertilizer. Maybe take a position on something once in a while Pit. All you ever do is let others know that the sky is blue and water is wet...

RHS Jun 24, 2021 01:08 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

Why are we not upset by the esthetics of this decision. Already the view from 101 has begun to look like something one might see looking at the Amazon distribution monsters along I5. But those awful vistas are in smog ridden and uber dense sprawl. These offenses have ruined a bucolic and special place. It is hard for me to not suspect $ is the reason for this approval.

Byzantium Jun 24, 2021 04:23 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

Seven luxury homes in the foothills would have generated $1 million a year in property taxes. Choice between 30 new luxury homes scattered around the county on large estates or this wretched, invasive pot industry, I will take a few more millionaires coming here to live any day. It is all about trade-offs. Stop electing county supervisors who think we need higher taxes to pay for their long-standing fiscal mismanagement of county operations - mainly over-promising employee pensions, and failure to maintain county infrastructure. Just so they could instead benefit county employee union member support, for their own elections

ParvoPup Jun 24, 2021 06:13 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

When I first moved to the North County many moons ago, the greater Santa Ynez area was still mostly cattle.

And the suburbs of Buellton griped about the smell of poop .

Then came the llama fad - and they stink too.

As you expect, the cattle people moaned and groaned about the llama people; wailing away about how their cattle raising way of life was going away.

A decade later, the llamas were supplanted by the tax write-off known as "horse breeding" where every Tom, Dick and Harry with a yard just had to have a horse - they too poop a lot and stink to high heavens on a hot day. The llama people griped about the horse people taking over just like the cattle people had 10 years before them.

Then the grape growers discovered the place and everyone began boo-hooing all over again. They are cutting down the oak trees, they are plowing the hillsides, they are buying out the horse ranches - boo-hoo.

Now we have the next wave of evolution in the form of cannabis farms and the wailing of the before-time people has begun the same cycle I have been watching for going on forty years.

Can't wait to see what comes next in another 10 years.

NotReallyDave Jun 24, 2021 08:06 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

The people who occupy any of the positions in government come to realize that their future monies for pensions have to come from somewhere and there is a lot of it that will come from this industry. Government knows that it is easier to keep control over its "constituents" (read worker bees) if they are either high or drunk or sleeping it off.

edney Jun 24, 2021 09:15 PM
County Approves “Gargantuan” Cannabis “Grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

First world problems... doesn't mean we don't have a right to want change or mitigation, its the lack of perspective that gets to me.
A person who doesn't like the opium grows in Burma can just STFU or die at the hands of the bought and sold.. At least here we get to make futile complaints and post our angst on edhat

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