County Supervisors to Consider Tougher Regs for Cannabis
Vintners say the county failed to consider the impacts of the cannabis industry on the Santa Rita Hills, the county’s most successful wine region. This operation on Santa Rosa Road follows the Santa Ynez River into the heart of wine country. (Photo by Melinda Burns)
By Melinda Burns
An unrelenting barrage of citizen complaints, contentious hearings, lawsuits, a bitter election campaign and a last-ditch request for a federal investigation has finally brought the Board of Supervisors to a critical vote on how and whether to put the lid on the cannabis industry in what some residents are calling “CannaBarbara County.”
Not since the heyday of Big Oil has an industry so divided residents here – with the difference that, in the wake of the 1969 oil spill and under pressure from a burgeoning environmental movement, the county government vigorously regulated oil and gas development, accepting more drilling, but on its own stringent terms. In 1990, the county was instrumental in strengthening the federal Clean Air Act to give local agencies jurisdiction over offshore platforms for the first time.
By contrast, in 2018, the county Board of Supervisors overrode the findings of “significant impacts” from future clusters of cannabis operations, including “offensive odors,” and approved an ordinance that was designed to promote “a robust and economically viable legal cannabis industry.”
Now, after three years of mounting protest from Carpinteria to the Lompoc Valley, a big showdown is brewing. On Tuesday (June 2), the board will consider a 5-0 recommendation from the county Planning Commission to require stricter zoning permits, called conditional use permits, or CUPs, for all cannabis cultivation and processing.
On one hand, industry advocates contend that “a small vocal group” of affluent NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) residents is demanding unreasonable restrictions that will gum up the system and set growers back more than a year and tens of thousands of dollars. And on the other, homeowners and farmers alike say their health, livelihood, and quality of life are being threatened, if not ruined, by an out-of-control marijuana “Gold Rush.”
In theory, at least, conditional use permits would set a higher bar for cannabis operators, requiring them, for example, to avoid pesticide conflicts with neighboring vintners and avocado growers and prevent the eye-watering, skunk-like stench of marijuana plants from drifting into homes and wine tasting rooms.
“It’s not fair that an industry comes in and takes over with really no concern for the citizens that are affected,” said Anna Carrillo, a member of both Concerned Carpinterians, a loosely-organized group of 300 residents, business people and farmers, and the Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a non-profit group with 200 members.
Paul Ekstrom, a retired Carpinteria firefighter and coalition board member, said: “A CUP should have been required since Day One. My house is just bombarded with skunk smell. These people are making a fortune doing this; the least they can do is come up with a better way to control odor.”
The voters of California legalized marijuana for adult recreational use in November, 2016. Today, with 1,133 state licenses issued for cannabis and 260 acres under cultivation, Santa Barbara County is second only to Humboldt County in its embrace of the lucrative crop. Most growers here are operating without county zoning permits or county business licenses.
On March 25, as county planning commissioners considered proposing a conditional use permit for cultivation and processing, David Van Wingerden, who grows cannabis at CVW Organic Farms on Casitas Pass Road, told them, “You’re shutting down the entire industry.” Van Wingerden said he took odor complaints seriously, but, he said, “Does this mean our neighborhood will never catch a whiff?”
“We need some tolerance for short periods of odors around our farms,” Van Wingerden said. “Give the current ordinance time to work.”
A conditional use permit automatically requires a public hearing before the commission. Under the current rules, cannabis projects can be approved by the county Planning Department director without a hearing, except on appeal, and they don’t automatically require design review. As it is, growers say, they are spending roughly $100,000 to get through current county review; they estimate that a conditional use permit would cost them twice as much.
Crucially, to obtain a conditional use permit, a grower would have to show that his or her cannabis operation was “compatible with the surrounding area” and “not detrimental to the comfort, convenience, general welfare, health, and safety of the neighborhood.” No such findings are necessary under the current zoning permit that the county requires for cannabis. (Conditional use permits for cannabis are required chiefly in rural residential neighborhoods).
Graham Farrar, the only cannabis grower in Carpinteria with a county zoning permit, said it would be counterproductive to drag growers through a more time-consuming and expensive permit process. Farrar has all the necessary permits and licenses for seven acres of cannabis under cultivation in greenhouses with roof vents at Glass House Farms on Foothill Road; he still needs permits for his three-acre greenhouse operation on Casitas Pass Road.
“Moving to a CUP would send all of us back to square one,” Farrar said. “The sooner you permit and fully license folks, the sooner you can penalize someone who doesn’t obey the rules. That’s where you get the control. That’s what I think the community wants.”
But Jim Mannoia, who lives in a 140-unit condominium complex at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, near a cluster of cannabis greenhouses at Foothill and Nidever roads, believes a conditional use permit would help get rid of the pungent smell of marijuana that makes him and his neighbors nauseous, gives them headaches and drives them indoors, even in warm weather.
“We have been submitting complaints,” Mannoia said, “but the supervisors, who are purportedly representing the people, don’t get it. It pretty much smells midday, non-stop. In the evenings, when we drive on Via Real, we get the same stench.
“This is not just a mild inconvenience; it’s a major change in the quality of our lives here. We’ve invested our life’s savings, and we’re in a situation where we don’t know if we can stay.”
Clamor for reforms
Like Mannoia, cannabis critics across the county support a conditional use permit for all cannabis cultivation as an immediate “fix.” But many believe that trying to control the outdoor smell is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube.
For months, if not years, these residents have been clamoring for more far-reaching reforms: sealed cannabis greenhouses and processing buildings with state-of-the-art odor filtration systems; per-parcel “caps” on “grows”; larger buffer zones between cannabis operations and schools, homes and “legacy” farms; a ban on cultivation in and around rural neighborhoods; a ban on cultivation on coastal properties of less than 20 acres; term limits on cannabis permits, and a shutdown of what they view as the illegal expansion of former medical marijuana “grows.”
Many of these proposals would likely require amendments to the county’s cannabis ordinance. On Tuesday, the board may consider them in addition to or instead of a CUP requirement, since they were discussed by the Planning Commission over months of hearings.
Yet while the commissioners have fielded the brunt of citizen complaints about the cannabis industry and sought to address them, the supervisors, led by Das Williams of Carpinteria and Steve Lavagnino of Santa Maria, have repeatedly rebuffed their recommendations, a trend that critics call “the ping-pong debacle.”
The board has watered down rules designed by the commission to contain or eliminate odor; reduced buffers between cannabis greenhouses and schools, and declined to enact a formal process to verify the validity of growers’ claims to pre-legalization medicinal “grows.”
On March 17, the board increased the acreage for Busy Bee’s Organics, a 22-acre cannabis operation on Highway 246 near Buellton, beyond the 18 acres recommended by the commission.
“We have watched you agonize over these topics,” Blair Pence, the owner of the Pence Vineyards & Winery on 246, told the commission a week later. Pence’s tasting room is across from the highway from Busy Bee’s.
“Your recommendations have been consistently ignored by the county Board of Supervisors,” he said. “The system is gamed to make simple solutions too complicated right now. At least a CUP will give you some control. Go for it.”
On April 21, the board majority overturned the commission’s denial of a 50-acre cannabis operation proposed by Santa Barbara Westcoast Farms LLC, also on 246.
Pence is a coalition co-founder; he and the group filed a lawsuit in Santa Barbara Superior Court on April 23 against the Board of Supervisors and Busy Bee’s. On Friday (May 22), the coalition filed a lawsuit against the board and Westcoast Farms. The plaintiffs are asking the court to shut down both projects, alleging that the board broke its own zoning rules, failed to uphold the county’s General Plan or conduct proper environmental review and violated state law governing agricultural preserves.
Alone in California, Santa Barbara County has allowed self-identified former medicinal marijuana growers to continue operating under “legal, non-conforming” status and temporary state business licenses, so long as they submit applications for county zoning permits and county business licenses. In its lawsuit, the cannabis coalition contends that most of those operations have illegally expanded well beyond their 2015 acreage. But the county doesn’t keep track.
Only 20 zoning permits have been issued for cannabis cultivation to date, covering 243 acres, according to a quarterly report that was presented to the board on May 19 by the county executive officer. Meanwhile, 189 applications are in the pipeline, most of them listed as “awaiting applicant action,” covering 2,422 acres. That’s hundreds more acres than what the county will ultimately approve permits for: the board has set a cultivation cap of 1,761 acres. There is no deadline for obtaining a permit.
“Growers have no incentive to speed up the process,” Carrillo said.
At a March 25 hearing, planning Commissioner John Parke proposed the new permit requirement for cannabis as “a simple, sweet thing.” Parke represents part of the scenic Sta. Rita Hills wine region west of Buellton, where sprawling swaths of white plastic cannabis hoop-houses have popped up in a federally-designated American Viticultural Area in recent years.
“This is something we can do right now,” Parke said. “It will resolve most of the problems we are having.”
Commissioner Mike Cooney next proposed, and the commission agreed, to forward a second recommendation that the board will hear on Tuesday: that “odors generated by cannabis activities will be compatible with the surrounding area” and “will not be detrimental” to the health and welfare of the neighborhood.
“Unless we find a way to control odors from the cannabis, our future in the cannabis business in this county is questionable,” Cooney said.
Cooney’s district includes the Carpinteria Valley, a hotbed of protest ever since a number of flower greenhouses with roof vents were converted to cannabis four years ago, many of them along Foothill Road, or “Cannabis Row,” as the locals call it.
“I wasn’t willing to let this leave the planning commission without addressing the offensive odor,” Cooney said. “All we’ve done is delay the inevitable.”
From Foothill to the beach, Carpinterians say the persistent smell of marijuana has sickened them and made them prisoners in their own homes. But at one hearing, a grower pushed back: “Nobody complains about the smell of garlic in Gilroy because it’s the Garlic Capitol of the World.”
“I rail against the growers who say it isn’t a big deal – It is,” Cooney said in an interview, adding that one of his sons lives in Carpinteria. “They shouldn’t be allowed to cultivate cannabis at the expense of the existing neighborhood. And I’m not sure that five members of the board agree with me on that.
“The board can’t ignore the potential for income for the county. And maybe it’s not just money; maybe they believe it’s an industry that employs a lot of people. But the planning commission is not burdened by how much revenue a project will produce.”
“Bright spot” of pot
Some Carpinteria Valley greenhouse operators – the county doesn’t know how many – have voluntarily installed vapor-control systems designed for landfills, in an attempt to neutralize the smell of marijuana plants, which is especially strong during harvesting and processing.
Sealed greenhouses, Farrar said, would be costly to build and energy-intensive to run, requiring air conditioning for 10 acres of buildings. They might be appropriate for Colorado or Canada, where it snows, he said, but “Santa Barbara is beautiful because the climate is perfect.”
As for the smell, “We started running our odor control machine on Foothill before we put a plant in, just to see if we could help in the neighborhood,” Farrar said. “It’s the No. 1 thing we’re trying to do.”
Farrar prefers to highlight the “bright spot” of cannabis – the $10 million in tax revenues it’s expected to bring in to county coffers during the 2020-21 fiscal year.
“That was always supposed to be the deal,” Farrar said. “Things would be supremely painful without that $10 million dollars.”
County records show that more than $3 million dollars of this year’s cannabis tax revenues will go to planning and law enforcement for cannabis operations.
According to last week’s board report, the county Sheriff’s Department confiscated and destroyed $7.5 million in marijuana plants and dried marijuana from illegal operations from July 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020. During that period, the county collected the same amount in taxes – $7.5 million – from legal operations, with several dozen growers reporting zero receipts.
Carpinteria’s hot spots
In any case, Carpinterians say cannabis taxes give them no relief from the “skunky” smell of marijuana that persists daily, alternating with a soapy “laundromat” smell from the greenhouse vapor-control systems.
There are five main hot spots, residents say: at Foothill and Nidever near the Polo Club; on Foothill west of the Carpinteria High School; near the intersection of Foothill and Casitas Pass Road; on Via Real near the Santa Claus Lane freeway exit and in the beach community of Padaro Lane. Carpinteria’s variable winds carry the odor far and wide.
At her home on Meadow Circle across from the high school, Joan Esposito says she has had to take up a carpet that absorbed the stench of marijuana. She put down wood floors instead. And since she can’t open her windows, she said, she installed a $10,000 air-conditioner. Esposito said her headaches got so bad, she underwent a brain scan to rule out a tumor. She was cancer-free.
Ekstrom, the coalition board member, believes that cannabis should be readily available for sale at 7-Eleven convenience stores, like six-packs of beer. But he is a plaintiff in a lawsuit that the coalition filed early this year against four cannabis operators on Foothill Road, demanding that they seal their greenhouses to get rid of the “ever-present noxious odor” in his neighborhood.
Ekstrom lives near the end of a cul-de-sac on Manzanita St., about 50 feet from a cannabis greenhouse. His house has six hinged and screened skylights, but Ekstrom says he keeps them closed tight. Even so, the “skunky” smell wakes him up at 3 a.m.
“We’re getting nowhere with the county,” he said. “It’s a terrible thing. Here I live half a mile from the beach and I have to have an air conditioner? This has been going on for three to four years now. I just want to smell air that doesn’t smell at all.”
On La Mirada Drive above Foothill, Bobbie Offen believes that her childhood asthma has returned because the stench of cannabis hangs in the air whenever a breeze comes in off the ocean.
“There’s been absolutely no thought whether this cluster of cannabis growers is compatible with the residents who have been there longer than they have,” Offen said.
When the wind is blowing offshore, it carries the smell to Padaro Lane, where Nanci Robertson says she can’t enjoy her deck after 5:30 p.m. She said she has installed a $900 air purifier in her bedroom that runs 24 hours a day, but the odor steals in through her stove and dryer vents and blasts her awake in the middle of the night.
“The board is so worried about the growers having to spend extra money,” Robertson said. “It would be very surprising to me if the board takes that CUP recommendation and runs with it.”
These residents say they don’t bother anymore to file odor complaints with the county because they always get back the same “canned” reply, informing them that the county can’t require growers to install “odor abatement equipment” until they obtain zoning permits.
“Your cannabis odor complaint has been logged and will be used to help track cannabis odor in Carpinteria and pinpoint odor sources,” the reply states.
The City of Carpinteria has taken up the cause, too; city officials have repeatedly asked the county to “investigate and terminate” what they regard as the illegal expansion of “nonconforming” cannabis operations – especially in light of the large number of inactive permit applications.
“Inactive or incomplete applications should be closed out,” Steve Goggia, community development director, said in a recent letter to the commission. “ … Strong cannabis odors persist in multiple areas throughout the valley.”
Last fall, Carpinteria residents were instrumental in an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Supervisor Williams, a chief architect of the cannabis ordinance. In January, the cannabis coalition filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s office, requesting a federal investigation into cannabis operations in Carpinteria.
Standoff in wine country
According to the recent board report, the largest number of active state cannabis licenses in Santa Barbara County is held by growers in the Santa Ynez and Lompoc Valleys – 691 licenses covering 165 acres to date.
In the Santa Rita Hills between Buellton and Lompoc, vintners such as Michael Benedict, who co-founded the Sanford & Benedict Winery on Santa Rosa Road west of Buellton 50 years ago, are calling the influx of cannabis “the biggest concentration anywhere in America.”
“It’s what’s been driving everybody mad,” said Benedict, who has long since sold his winery and now works as a consultant. “I don’t object to cannabis. What I do object to is for them to insert themselves right in the middle of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, where we have spent a huge amount of capital trying to create an image of a serious, world-class wine growing area.”
A former county planning commissioner, Benedict blames the county for letting cannabis growers expand without permits. The result is a pervasive atmosphere of conflict and anxiety in the agricultural region, he said, stemming from the smell of marijuana in tasting rooms; the visual blight of industrial-scale cannabis; the fear of potential “taint” to grapes from aromatic compounds in cannabis; and confrontations over pesticides, even organic pesticides, accompanied by letters from cannabis attorneys threatening to sue.
“The cultural thing is awful.” Benedict said. “A CUP will be a step in the right direction, but I would far rather completely start over from scratch. Being an old planning commissioner, I want the county to do the proper planning first, before it issues entitlements – not the other way around.”
Benedict contends there are “thousands of acres” where cannabis could be grown a mile away from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, where small wineries typically count on visitors for three-quarters of their revenue.
“There doesn’t have to be this conflict,” he said.
But Ted Fox, vice-president of compliance for Heirloom Valley LLC, a cannabis operation on Santa Rosa Road that has applied for a zoning permit, believes that vintners are supporting a conditional use permit for cannabis as a way to attack a formidable competitor and retain their “monopoly” status in the region.
According to the County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, wine grapes grossed $121 million in 2018, the second-highest value for any crop, after strawberries.
“It’s a concerted effort on the part of a major industry to fight a new industry,” said Fox, who belongs to the North County Farmers Guild, a group of about 40 cannabis growers. “It’s just adding layers of appeals that are unnecessary. This is not resolving issues between neighbors.”
In a recent press statement, the guild noted that the county does not require wineries to obtain conditional use permits unless they’re going to host events of more than 200 people, more than 12 times per year. Cannabis should not be subject to greater restrictions than the strawberry or broccoli crops that were previously grown on these farmlands, the guild said.
Fox said Heirloom is growing 45 acres of cannabis on a 177-acre property. In all, zoning permits are in the pipeline for about 600 acres of cannabis in the Santa Rita Hills, while 3,600 acres are planted in wine grapes – out of a total 31,000 acres in the AVA, most of it in pasture.
“And we’re being positioned as ‘monster grows’?” Fox said. “There has been a lot of rhetoric, but not a lot of evidence-based facts in this discussion.”
Yet there have been real losses. At the 99-acre Fiddlestix Vineyard on Santa Rosa Road, Kathy Joseph, the owner and winemaker since 1997, said she had to destroy $80,000 in chardonnay grapes last year, after her spraying operations were found to have contaminated the Central Coast Agriculture cannabis operation next door.
Threatened with a lawsuit, Joseph said, she switched her anti-mildew fungicides in the middle of the season to one that was compatible with cannabis – only, more expensive and less effective on grapes. Her grapes did not prosper, she said, and her buyer rejected five acres’ worth.
“We are on a plateau at an extremely windy site,” Joseph said. “I’m not against cannabis; I’m against having to adjust what I do for the benefit of cannabis. We’re trying to work with our neighbor, but they would not agree to a wind fence unless we would publicly support the land-use permit they’re applying for. We’re being strong-armed into making it work for them.”
The county has suggested that neighbors work things out, Joseph told the board last month, but, she said: “We are unable in good conscience to support an inappropriate nonconforming use, a use that has already caused us harm and places us at a significant financial risk.”
The relationship “has not been amiable or pleasant,” Joseph said. In an interview, she said the county “didn’t do its homework about the effects on long-term existing farming … At least under a CUP, every situation would be reviewed and customized.”
John De Friel, the Central Coast owner and CEO, is an alternate on the county Agricultural Advisory Committee and belongs to a group of cannabis growers who have hired a lobbyist in Sacramento. He said an employee discovered the pesticide drift from Fiddlestix at 4 a.m. one morning last June when he was awakened by wind chimes and the sound of a tractor.
The company filed a report with the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office because it’s required, De Friel said: pesticide drift is illegal. His crop was contaminated, but De Friel said he is able to remove pesticides from cannabis oil during processing: he just doesn’t want to have to do it all the time. For the fungicides Joseph was using, the state allows fewer than 100 parts per billion, an infinitesimal amount, on “inhalable cannabis.”
Since then, De Friel said, and as “a good-faith gesture,” he has bought a state-of-the-art tractor equipped with vacuums that can recirculate pesticide; he’s willing to lease it to Joseph’s commercial sprayer for $1 per month.
“We told them, ‘You can apply whatever you want, just don’t do it in the wind,’” De Friel said. “The irony is, the issue is working itself out.”
De Friel said he did not threaten to sue Joseph, but he said he had offered to build a wind fence along her vineyard, on the condition that she would agree not to contest his application for a county zoning permit. De Friel said he was not interested in a “one-sided deal,” adding, “They have not responded to us in weeks.”
In addition to 19 acres next to Fiddlestix, De Friel has a second property on Santa Rosa Road where he is growing cannabis on 26 acres. Both operations are “legal, non-conforming.” A requirement for a conditional use permit would be burdensome and unnecessary and would stall the industry, De Friel said.
“I have seen zero evidence that cannabis impacts tourism,” he said. “We will bring in tourism, especially from millennials who are falling out from the wine industry.”
In a reference to America’s most famous wine region, De Friel added: “Santa Barbara County has the opportunity to be the Napa Valley of cannabis.”
Debra Eagle, a coalition board member and the general manager of Alma Rosa Winery on Santa Rosa Road, believes the best way to resolve the conflicts between vintners and cannabis growers is for the county to enact per-parcel limits for cannabis cultivation. In Sonoma County, it’s one acre per parcel. In Humboldt County, it’s one acre per person on properties between 20 and 320 acres in size, or up to eight acres on properties of 320 acres or more.
“The reason we’re upset is they’re overtaking our hillsides,” Eagle said. “If they’re under hoop-houses, they’re ungodly; they’ve got armed guards. If all they could have were two acres, we would not be having this argument. We’d be annoyed, but we would not have the odor issues or the visual blight.
“The CUP is trying to rein in a horrible situation. What we’d much rather have is a much better ordinance.”
Mike Brown, owner of the Kalyra Winery on North Refugio Road, claims to have been the first person to plant grapes in the Santa Ynez Valley, 50 years ago. He says he can understand why some vintners are upset with “gigantic, in-your-face” hoop-house “grows” at their property lines. But if he wants to plant four acres of cannabis outdoors, not under hoops, Brown says, he should be able to do it without a conditional use permit. And he hopes that the county will not allow large companies to grab all of the available cannabis acreage.
Brown said he recently called up 40 vintners in the valley and the Santa Rita Hills; 39 of them, he said, thought cannabis “could go hand-in-hand with our industry,” so long as it was grown “in a neighborly fashion.” The boom years that followed “Sideways” – the popular 2004 movie that was filmed in the Santa Rita Hills – are over, Brown said, and so are the weekends in which a single tasting room could gross $10,000 in sales.
“An outdoor grow of marijuana doesn’t look any different than a vineyard,” Brown said. “There’s tons of places in the valley where you could plant one to four acres. It can be sheltered and out of view, and a lot more people would be more happy if that was the case.”
Rough estimates from growers suggest that one acre of wine grapes can gross anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000 in annual revenues, while one acre of marijuana can bring in as much as $1 million.
But not everyone is tempted. In a letter to the board in April, David Slay, owner of the Slay Estate & Vineyard on 246, said the rains of recent years had made the vineyards and farms along the highway “some of the greenest and prettiest … only to be ruined by the stench of cannabis.”
“We have been asked to participate, to lease our property, use our barn and be paid good money by some in the cannabis industry,” Slay said. “No amount is worth it.”
Reporter’s Notebook: “On Edge” in Wine Country
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the vineyards west of Buellton; I wanted to see how things have changed with the arrival of cannabis. On a recent morning, a vintner showed me around; we drove in separate cars to maintain “social distance,” and I put my iPhone on speakerphone on the passenger seat. Occasionally, I pulled over and got out to take a photograph.
We stopped first on Santa Rosa Road by the entrance of Central Coast Agriculture, a large cannabis operation with a guardhouse, near the gateway to the Sta. Rita Hills wine region. Then we spent half an hour or more visiting a winery, stopping in the shade at Santa Rosa Park and driving to the top of a hill for more views.
As I was taking pictures, a white pickup truck drove up; the driver asked me if I was a reporter, then demanded to know my name, my publication, and the subject of this story. I told him. He said drones were illegal in private spaces. I was obviously using an iPhone, not a drone, and I was clearly on the road shoulder in the public right-of-way. But the driver photographed me and my license plate: “Just in case,” he said. So, I photographed him, photographing me.
As I got back into the car, the driver told the vintner that his “spotter” had notified him of our whereabouts. It must have been the woman who was idling her car across from the park entrance when we came out.
When I asked John De Friel, the owner and CEO of Central Coast, about the incident, he said the company had been having a problem with drones. He conceded that his employee, who lives on the property, has “put people a little on edge.” But how would I feel if someone was taking photos of my house? De Friel asked. “Wouldn’t you want to ask them questions?”
Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara