Cannabis Gets a Big Win in Wine Country
Cannabis plants give off a pungent skunk-like smell during harvesting and drying operations (Photo: Melinda Burns)
By Melinda Burns
Is cannabis compatible with wine grapes?
Yes, the county Board of Supervisors said this week, voting 4-0 to uphold a land-use permit for Busy Bee Organics, allowing cannabis cultivation on 22 acres along Highway 246, west of Buellton. The scenic highway is the gateway to the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley wine country.
It was the first appeal of a cannabis land-use permit to come before the board in the region, and it was a big win for Busy Bee. Sara Rotman, the property co-owner, asked for and won a four-acre increase beyond the 18 acres approved for cultivation by the county Planning Commission in November.
One greenhouse will be allowed on the 62-acre property; the rest of the 22 acres in cultivation will be outdoors, including a maximum of five acres under plastic tarps in “hoop houses.” Two new 3,000 square-foot buildings will be allowed for processing.
“We’re just grateful to get back to the work of farming,” Sara Rotman, a co-owner of Busy Bee with her husband, Nate Diaz, said by phone after Tuesday’s hearing. “There’s been an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and review. It makes projects like mine better, and I’m grateful that the supervisors agreed.”
But Marc Chytilo, an attorney for the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a citizens’ group, called the vote “an extreme disservice to the commission and the community.” The coalition had asked the board to deny a permit for Busy Bee, or, alternatively, place a three-year term limit on it. Chytilo said the increase from 18 to 22 acres would result in an “excessive amount of cultivation on this parcel.” Busy Bee, he said, was proposing a major industrial operation that deserved more scrutiny.
“We don’t oppose cannabis,” Chytilo said. “Categorically, we want to see the county get this right. The process has not worked in this case.”
Residents and vintners told the board that the “stench” from Busy Bee and other cannabis operations was ruining their quality of life and undermining business in 20 or more wine tasting rooms. Land-use permits for more than 970 acres of cannabis are pending in the region.
“Our lives have been abruptly battered with the unfettered pot growing,” Dianne Pence, a coalition member, said. “These new pot owners have no vested interest in our community.”
The board held its hearing in two separate meeting rooms in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, communicating by video to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus. Supervisor Peter Adam of Orcutt was absent. In a first for the county, the board allowed members of the public to phone in their comments.
One caller said Busy Bee was a “model family farm.” Jack Motter, a fellow cannabis applicant, said Rotman was “the exact kind of person we need to help us establish this industry.” Jon Olgrehn, who works in conventional and organic agriculture, including vineyards, called in to say that Busy Bee was “one of the cleanest operations out there.”
“They have the direct support of their immediate neighbors,” Olgrehn said. “It’s time for us to make decisions based on facts, not fear.”
South Coast Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the Carpinteria Valley, where residents are up in arms about the skunk-like smell of cannabis from greenhouse operations, said Busy Bee was “one of the most innocuous” projects “on the landscape.” He described visiting the property, fully expecting “not to be impressed.” Rotman and Diaz have planted rows of trees along the highway to screen their land from public view.
“You could even say I was leaning against the project," Williams said. “Then I passed it by without even noticing there was a marijuana operation there. That’s what we want.”
Chytilo presented a radically different picture of Busy Bee, showing the board aerial Google photographs that he said were confirmation of an illegal expansion on the property, from one greenhouse in 2015 to what appeared to be six greenhouses and 16 hoop houses in 2018. County officials said they opened a zoning violation case, but dropped it after the owners applied for a land-use permit in late 2018. A county staff report for the project stated that the planning commission approved it in 2019, “thereby authorizing the existing cannabis operation.”
Coalition members told the board they viewed the permit as a “reward for non-compliance.”
“Do you take us for fools?” asked Blair Pence, a coalition founder and the owner of Pence Ranch & Winery near Buellton.
In addition to increasing the acreage in cannabis for Busy Bee, the board lifted other permit restrictions imposed by the commission, including a requirement for additional review by the county planning director after two years. At the same time, the board upheld a requirement for unplanted 100-foot buffers on the eastern and western sides of the property to reduce pesticide conflicts with vineyard and broccoli operations.
Busy Bee will be required to install wind screens and fans and, ultimately, an odor-control system on the property boundary, if the county determines that odors from the marijuana harvesting and drying operations are creating a “substantially continuous public nuisance.” But the board removed permit restrictions imposed by the commission that would have required Busy Bee to dry cannabis offsite, immediately flash-freeze or box fresh plants, and ship all plant material offsite within two hours of the harvest, in order to keep odors under control.
Chytilo lambasted the board for what he called “cut-and-paste” and “decide-on-the-fly” changes.
“It substantially undercuts the authority of the planning commission and increases the odor footprint,” he said.
In explaining his support for Busy Bee, board Chairman Gregg Hart, who represents Goleta, said, “I do believe that cannabis farming and the wine industry can coexist.” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, representing Santa Maria, said that some large outdoor cannabis “grows” in the county were operating next to vineyards with zero complaints. And both Lavagnino and Hart noted that the City of Buellton had submitted a letter of support for Busy Bee.
“We live in an agricultural community,” Lavagnino said. “Agriculture means different things to different people. We allow our growers the tools to do the job they need to do.”
Yet the county’s own agricultural advisory committee had urged the board to delay voting on the Busy Bee permit appeals until the commission and the board could draw up amendments to the county’s Cannabis Zoning Ordinance. And, according to the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, most of its members operating near hemp or cannabis operations have experienced “significant and acrimonious conflict.”
Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley, said the Busy Bee permit “raised a lot of issues we need to address going forward.”
“It’s clear we need greater ability to condition these projects so that they are compatible with the surrounding area,” she said.
Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara