The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors directed Planning and Building Director John Ford on Tuesday to begin working with the many cannabis farmers who are violating the county’s commercial marijuana rules and to assess fines as needed.
The discussion came a little more than a week after Ford sent a letter to cannabis business applicants notifying them of what he called “pervasive” violations of county regulations by individuals who are starting new grows, expanding existing ones and erecting new structures before they have obtained permits.
“Most of the gross violations, if you will, have to do with people who have applied for new grows,” Ford said. “They’re not existing grows, they’re not (relocated) sites, they’re new grows who have simply decided to start without permits. I mean, the highest percentage of the violations we’re talking about fall into that category.”
The board voted unanimously — with 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg absent due to him having to attend his first meeting as a California coastal commissioner on Wednesday in San Diego — to direct Ford to work with noncompliant growers and to implement fines for every square foot of unpermitted cultivation.
The board directed those fines to be twice the cultivation tax rate of Measure S, which taxes marijuana cultivation $1 to $3 per square foot of cultivation depending on whether the farm is outdoor, indoor or mixed light.
Marijuana industry representatives cautioned the board on how it would proceed, stating that some farmers may have unintentionally violated county law while working to comply with other required permits in the legalization process.
Executive Director Terra Carver of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance — a chapter of the California Growers Association — recommended the board base fines on the egregiousness of the violations and treat any building code violations like any other type in the county. She and other industry officials warned that overly punitive measures could “erode confidence in the system.”
“Humboldt County has the most to gain and the most to lose in the same breath,” Carver said. “Working together is the only way forward.”
Industry representatives also recognized there are people who are “gaming the system” by applying for permits without intending to ever complete them in order to buy more time to continue unregulated cultivation.
Of the 2,300 cannabis business permits that have been filed with the county, only 125 permits are complete. Ford has extended the time these applicants have to complete their applications.
Arcata-based attorney Paul Hagen also urged the county to focus resources on black market activity rather than the individuals who are working to become permitted.
“Here’s the irony of being in compliance across the board in any environmental statutes. The people that comply are the ones that are the easiest to catch and prosecute,” Hagen said. “... You turn yourself in and you get punished for it.”
Ford stated that he would not be assessing fines on farmers who have modified their properties in an effort to comply with other agencies’ regulations and permit requirements.
“We’re looking at situations where people are flagrantly disregarding the process in the permit requirements,” Ford said.
The board’s discussion weighed how much leniency the county would be willing to give to those individuals who have shown good faith to apply for a permit, but are violating county laws.
The board ultimately decided that Ford’s department would have to consider the egregiousness of the violation and the efforts the farmer has put into coming into compliance when determining whether any fines should be assessed or further actions taken.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn stated that the county should focus on the estimated thousands of illegal cannabis grows rather than the permitted grows.
“If the first people that we go after are the people that have turned in permits, you’re not going to have to worry about expanding your department to handle all the permits because everybody is going to say, ‘There is no reason to do that ’cause they got my number,’” Bohn said to Ford.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.