Stricter Permits Are Coming for North County Cannabis
By Melinda Burns
Two years after roundly rejecting the idea, the county Board of Supervisors this week voted 3-2 to tighten its regulation of outdoor cannabis cultivation on large farming properties, primarily in the North County.
On Tuesday, board Chair Joan Hartmann and supervisors Bob Nelson and Das Williams voted in concept to require conditional use permits for all future outdoor “grows,” beginning four months from now. Supervisors Gregg Hart and Steve Lavagnino opposed the measure, as they did when it first came to the board in mid-2020. It returns to the board for a final vote on August 16.
Crucially, the stricter permits would not apply to cannabis greenhouse operations in the Carpinteria Valley, one of the largest pot-producing regions in California. And they come after the county has already approved 1,855 acres of outdoor cannabis in unincorporated areas, largely under more permissive permits.
That’s well beyond the cap of 1,575 acres that the board has set on outdoor cultivation — but some growers now eligible for the cap could drop out. Others on the waiting list could take their place, but under the proposed new rules, they would have to get conditional use permits. Future boards could decide to raise the cap.
Marc Chytilo, an attorney for Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a countywide group that advocates for tighter regulation of the industry, called the board’s change of heart “late in the game but still vitally important.”
“This establishes the standard for going forward,” he said. “We expect we’re going to see turnover in the industry. The lines have not been fully drawn about who’s in and who’s out.”
In recent years, bitter conflicts have arisen between North County cannabis growers and their neighbors over the “skunky” smell of pot that drifts into the City of Buellton and vintners’ wine tasting rooms at harvest time. The city; the coalition; WE Watch, a Santa Ynez Valley conservationist group, and the Santa Barbara Vintners have implored the board to rein in the industry and get the stench in the region under control.
Two years ago, when the county Grand Jury recommended conditional use permits for all cannabis cultivation, the board responded that the idea was “not reasonable.”
“I wished this had come a lot sooner, but it means we can look at each individual application and figure out whether or how it can fit with its neighbors,” said Hartmann, who represents much of the wine region west of Buellton.
Under the more permissive land-use permits, the board couldn’t require outdoor cannabis operators to scale back their cultivation; one operator was granted permits for 87 acres of cannabis next to a “legacy” vineyard. According to county officials, John De Friel, the owner of Central Coast Agriculture, a 30-acre “grow” at 8701 Santa Rosa Road, is one of only four outdoor growers whose operations have been approved to date under conditional use permits (CUPs) because of their location next to rural neighborhoods or urban boundary lines.
Under these permits, growers must show that their operations will be “compatible with surrounding uses” and “not detrimental to neighborhood comfort, convenience, general welfare, health and safety.” Public hearings before the county Planning Commission would be required. And the board could require larger buffers between cannabis grows and neighboring vineyards and homes. The minimum buffer is currently 50 feet from the property line; in the past, some vintners have requested 500 feet, without success.
“We could say we have enough cannabis in the Santa Ynez Valley and any more is a problem,” Hartmann said.
Nelson, whose district, like Hartmann’s, includes a portion of the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally-designated American Viticultural Area, said the caps on cannabis were perhaps giving residents a false sense of security. What if the state changes the rules? he asked. In the future, Nelson said, conditional use permits will give both the commission and the board the ability to scale back projects instead of rubber-stamping them.
“When the commission has the tools, it helps the applicant and staff to design a little more thoughtful project,” he said.
On Tuesday, Williams, who represents the Carpinteria Valley and was a chief architect of the county’s 2018 cannabis ordinance, reversed his 2020 vote on CUPs.
“There have been good projects, and projects we thought needed some work, and a CUP would help with those,” he said.
Eight cannabis projects are on appeal and still under review for final permit approvals under the outdoor cap. Their representatives, joined by Good Farmers/Great Neighbors, a North County industry group, asked the board on Tuesday for an exemption from the new requirements, calling them expensive, unfair and punitive, especially when the price of marijuana is falling. The board gave the eight growers until late September to get their permits under the current rules.
With the exception of Hartmann and Nelson, the board did not favor requiring odor control plans for all future outdoor cannabis — a measure that had been unanimously supported by the Planning Commission and requested by Santa Barbara Vintners and the citizens’ groups. Instead, the board majority agreed that odor control plans could be required only for grows such as De Friel’s that are proposed next to rural neighborhoods or urban boundaries; or on farming properties where cannabis would cover more than 51 percent of the land.
Lisa Plowman, the County Planning & Development Director, told the board on Tuesday that odor control plans for outdoor grows are “not very effective and may not be meaningful … it’s very hard to tell where the odor is coming from.” And she reminded the supervisors that the board had overridden any concerns about odor impacts when it drew up the cannabis ordinance in 2018.
Hartmann said it was important to start somewhere to reduce the smell, which blows into her neighborhood north of Buellton.
“To just say, ‘It’s tough: live with it:’ that’s to me unacceptable,” she said. “I live with it, I smell it, my neighbors smell it, community members come to me about this. We’re not making it up. It’s real.”
Plowman said, “I don’t want the public to have an expectation that can’t be met”; and Hartmann responded, “But certainly there are practices that are better than nothing.”
Lavagnino, a chief architect of the cannabis ordinance with Williams, then complained about the Planning Commission, saying, “Outdoor cannabis smells.” The late Commissioner Dan Blough, who represented Lavagnino’s district, often expressed his frustration that the county was not providing enough relief to the cannabis critics who packed into public hearings, clamoring for odor controls. Quixotically, Blough never stopped searching for ways that growers could be required to stop the smell of marijuana at the property line.
Back in 2020, Blough and the rest of the commission recommended that the board require conditional use permits for all cannabis. “We had some strong differences,” Lavagnino said.
“There’s been a battle for quite awhile between the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors over the cannabis ordinance,” he added. “They tried to turn it into their own ordinance because they didn’t agree with what our position was. We set the policy and they implement the policy … We shouldn’t be moving the goalpost.”
Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her report to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.