Supervisors Take a Pass on Stricter Permits Countywide for Cannabis
A cannabis operation along the Santa Ynez River below Santa Rosa County Park stretches into the heart of the county’s most successful wine region, the federally-designated Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area west of Buellton. (Photo by Melinda Burns)
By Melinda Burns
The county Board of Supervisors tinkered with its cannabis ordinance this week, promising immediate relief to 500 residents of North County canyons, but angering Carpinterians and Buellton-area vintners who said the proposals would do little to restrain an industry they view as running rampant and unchecked.
In its biggest move, the board voted 3-2 in concept to ban commercial cannabis cultivation and processing in rural neighborhoods such as Tepusquet and Cebada Canyons northeast of Sisquoc and Lompoc, respectively, where residents have clamored for such a measure for years. At countless hearings, they have recounted how the generator noise, truck traffic, night lights and “skunky” stench of industrial-scale cannabis was disrupting their country way of life.
“I’m going to say I was wrong, and now is the time we can rectify some of the mistakes we’ve made,” said Supervisor Peter Adam, who represents Orcutt, Lompoc and the Los Alamos Valley. “We have to allow ourselves, as the policymakers that have to make peace in our county, to go out and fix some of these things.”
The votes came nearly a year after the board asked the county Planning Commission to recommend ways to address the pungent smell of cannabis that wafts into Carpinteria Valley homes and Buellton-area wine tasting rooms, and the conflicts that have arisen over the pesticides used on “legacy” crops, particularly wine grapes, where cannabis has moved in next door.
But a far-reaching “fix” was not in the cards on Thursday. On the table was a sweeping recommendation by the commission to require stricter zoning permits, called conditional use permits, or CUPs, for all future cannabis projects, with more than 170 applications in the pipeline. These permits would require the projects to be “compatible with” and “not detrimental to” the surrounding neighborhoods.
But on Thursday, the board majority, led by Supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino, the chief architects of the cannabis ordinance, supported conditional use permits only for some cannabis, and only in the North County. In recent years, the board has repeatedly voted to overturn or weaken the commission’s efforts to rein in the burgeoning cannabis industry.
“It is enormously important to indicate that the future of Carpinteria is dependent upon the reduction of nuisance from marijuana odor but a continuation of the presence of the marijuana business,” said Williams, who represents the Carpinteria Valley, where many residents have complained that the stench of marijuana from cannabis greenhouses with roof vents is making them sick.
“We have had a decimation of our flower industry, and we are in the midst of the worst recession in our lifetimes,” Williams said. “I am anxious to get to the point where I say thumbs up or thumbs down to the operations in Carpinteria. If we have a CUP process countywide, it will be a long time before we pick through these folks.”
Williams and Lavagnino, who represents the Santa Maria Valley and Tepusquet Canyon, opposed the ban on commercial cannabis cultivation in North County communities that are designated as “existing rural developed neighborhoods.” It was proposed by Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally-designated American Viticultural Area west of Buellton. Board Chairman Gregg Hart, who represents the Goleta Valley, joined Hart and Adam in voting for the ban, noting that there was “tremendous resistance” to cannabis in those neighborhoods.
Williams and Lavagnino said that a ban would be unfair to cannabis growers who had already made significant investments of time and money.
“I think it’s really bad government to have a set of rules and change them when many of these people are at the very end of a long journey we’ve put them through,” Lavagnino said.
Williams called the ban “bargaining against ourselves” and said he was “enormously jaded” by the actions of cannabis critics who tried to unseat him last November and have filed three lawsuits against the board this year.
Williams noted that the board has adjusted its ordinance in the past, banning outdoor cannabis cultivation in the Carpinteria Valley, placing a countywide cap of 1,712 acres on cannabis, and requiring millions of dollars of odor control technology at many operations.
“And I cannot name one person in this entire county who has been satisfied by that,” Williams said. “They have only gotten angrier the more we have tried to accommodate them. They have lied to the press, used the political route, appealed every project and then sued the county.”
Williams said that requiring a conditional use permit would delay the review process in the Carpinteria Valley for years, providing “a cloak for bad actors” who were dragging their feet on odor control.
Williams, Lavagnino and Hart signaled that they would support a more limited change: a conditional use permit requirement only for those North County projects where cannabis cultivation would cover more than 50 percent of a property. Adam and Hartmann voted no. Proposals by Hartmann to require conditional use permits for cannabis in the Sta. Rita Hills and odor controls for all outdoor cultivation also were defeated 3-2.
“I’m sorry,” Adam told Hartmann, speaking to her via his computer screen.
The board also voted 4-1 in concept to require a 50-foot buffer from the property line for all cannabis cultivation in the North County. Adam voted no, saying that 50 feet was too close to neighboring farms, where conflicts have arisen over pesticide contamination.
“Nobody knew that there was going to be zero tolerance on a crop that could be worth a million dollars an acre,” he said.
And in a unanimous vote, the supervisors proposed to ban the outdoor drying and processing of marijuana to help control the strongest odors from crop operations. Under this rule, North County growers would be required either to ship cannabis offsite for processing or construct a building on the property, outfitted with the “best available” odor control technology.
The board also voted unanimously, in concept, to exempt already-approved cannabis projects from the new rules.
A public hearing and final board vote on the proposed cannabis ordinance amendments will be scheduled for later this summer, county officials said.
Thursday’s hearing was the continuance of a June 2 hearing on the ordinance. The public submitted more than 600 pages of comments for and against a conditional use permit requirement for all cannabis, and nearly 170 of these were read into the record.
Those in favor of greater regulation included Concerned Carpinterians, a loosely-organized group of 300 residents, business people and farmers; the Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a non-profit group with 200 members and a plaintiff in the cannabis lawsuits against the board; the Carpinteria Valley Association, a preservationist group; City of Carpinteria; Cate School in Carpinteria; City of Goleta; homeowners’ associations representing the Polo Condos in Carpinteria, the foothills around Old North San Marcos Road and the neighborhoods of San Antonio Creek, More Mesa and Winchester Canyon in the Goleta Valley; the county Farm Bureau, with 800 members; the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, representing 170 fruit and vegetable growers; and numerous vintners, including former county Supervisor Brooks Firestone of Los Olivos.
In an interview on Thursday, Kevin Merrill, a Farm Bureau board member, called the supervisors’ proposed rule changes “a mishmash of regulations.” He said he sympathized with cannabis growers who now may have to adapt to changes mid-stream, but, he said, it’s a “no-win” for grape growers like him, too. The pesticide standard is so high for cannabis, Merrill said, it’s almost impossible for a neighboring farmer to reach it.
“Because of the drift problem, in many cases, it raises havoc,” Merrill said, noting that the Farm Bureau believes cannabis should be grown exclusively indoors and in sealed buildings in the county. “A 50-foot buffer is nothing.”
In Carpinteria, members of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis expressed dismay and anger after the board’s votes and what they said was Williams’ “tirade.”
“I’m very disappointed, very upset,” Anna Carrillo said. “I didn’t like us being called liars and naysayers. There is nothing that Das is helping us with – no reduction in the density of cultivation, no increase in buffers, no change in the odor requirements, nothing.”
Paul Ekstrom, a retired Carpinteria firefighter, a coalition board member and a plaintiff in a coalition lawsuit against four greenhouse operators on Foothill Road, now known locally as “Cannabis Row,” said he favors the open sale of cannabis on the market – he just wants growers to put a lid on the offensive skunk-like odors that penetrate his house on Manzanita Street, day and night.
For the Carpinteria Valley, Ekstrom said, the only recourse may be the courts.
“For Williams to be so self-righteous about this is just laughable,” he said. “This is a mess he’s got us into.”
Those opposing stricter zoning permits for cannabis included members of Carp Growers, representing 12 cannabis operations in the Carpinteria Valley; the North County Farmer’s Guild, a group of 40 cannabis growers; Carpinteria residents who cited the growers’ generous donations to their community in the pandemic; engineers, planners and other professionals employed in the cannabis business, and Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne.
This group also included vintners such as Teddy Cabugos, who grows 28 acres of wine grapes at the Sunstone Winery, a property he owns on North Refugio Road in the Santa Ynez Valley. Cabugos said he wants to put in eight acres of cannabis at the back of his land to tap into a younger clientele and “save his business.”
On Thursday, Cabugos said he was “very happy” with the board’s latest proposals, adding, “Had they adopted a blanket CUP for every project, it would have put a major hindrance on the industry. This would have crushed us. A lot of people would have gone to different counties.”
Now, Cabugos said, he knows 10 or 15 vintners in the valley and the Sta. Rita Hills who he expects will file the paperwork for cannabis permits within a month. Under the current rules, cannabis projects can be approved by the county Planning Department director without a hearing, except on appeal.
Cabugos said he envisioned future cannabis and wine tours in the North County, complete with “consumption lounges” for cannabis, alongside wine tasting rooms.
“Cannabis and wine can coexist; they can enhance being able to diversity your land and your business and come out with multiple products,” Cabugos said.
In the Carpinteria Valley, Graham Farrar of Carp Growers said, “The Board of Supervisors is recognizing that there is an upside to the community, having cannabis here. That’s always been the deal.”
Farrar is the only cannabis greenhouse operator in the valley with a zoning permit, issued for seven acres of cultivation on Casitas Pass Road. He is applying for a permit for his three-acre “grow” on Foothill. Growers do not need stricter regulations that would simply delay permits longer, Farrar said.
“I’m certainly relieved to know that the nine months of work we’ve done to get to almost-approved stage is not going to be thrown in the trash,” he said.
Farrar said the county conducts odor inspections at his greenhouses on Casitas Pass every quarter, inspections that cannot take place at greenhouses without permits.
“I want them to go to everybody’s farm,” he said. “When that happens, we are going to see better results.”
“The Cannabis Rag”
Perhaps the happiest person on Thursday was Renée O’Neill, a resident of Tepusquet Canyon who wept as she reacted to the news of the board’s proposed ban on commercial cannabis operations in her leafy oak-and-sycamore haven along a winding creek. The neighborhood of about 375 people formed a “crisis committee” in recent years, outfitting residents with purple hats for appearances at public hearings.
“I’m elated,” O’Neill said. “I’m just so relieved that after all these years of effort, it’s finally happening. Tepusquet community is very relieved and appreciative that the majority of supervisors voted to support prohibiting commercial cannabis in our neighborhood. It’s what should have been done and what we have advocated for since the beginning.
“For all these years, the personal lives of so many people in our community have been adversely impacted by the large-scale, commercial industry growers. Our lifestyle, our sense of peace, our health, safety, welfare have been affected.”
County records show that 14 cannabis permit applications are in the pipeline for Tepusquet Canyon; the board allowed growers of pre-legalization medicinal cannabis to continue operating there under “legal, nonconforming” status, and most of these operations have been expanded.
O’Neill had become a fixture at county hearings on cannabis, showing slides of the tanker trucks that rumbled by daily within 50 feet of her home as they traveled to and from “grows” high on the hillsides. O’Neill shared photos of truck wrecks on the canyon’s narrow and winding road, and she composed – and sang snatches of – a song for the board, entitled, “The Cannabis Rag.”
“Three-plus years of ‘Legal Weed?’” it begins. “What have we gained as we proceed?/ Revenue? Ha? What a joke! /We watch it going up in smoke!”
To the south in Cebada Canyon, off Highway 246, six cannabis operations would be shut down under the board’s latest proposals. There are about 50 homes in Cebada Canyon, each on about 20 acres. Many of the 110 residents in the canyon board horses, raise a few goats or grow hay and wine grapes.
But plans for a cannabis operation at the end of Cebada Canyon Road, next to the rural neighborhood, would not be affected by the proposed ban. Herbal Angels, the former operator, was shut down in a raid by Sheriff’s deputies last December; the owner faces felony charges for perjury and alleged falsification of public records.
On Wednesday, June 10, the Planning Commission voted 5-0 to deny a zoning permit to Herbal Angels for 17 acres of cannabis and two large processing plants. The operators have 10 days to appeal the commission’s decision to the board.
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.