When Humboldt County approved its first cannabis industry rules two years ago, the historic occasion was met with a rousing standing ovation in the packed Board of Supervisor’s chambers. When the board approved the first major expansion to its cannabis industry on Tuesday afternoon, the reaction was notably hushed.
The silence was noted by 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell, who expressed surprise to the reaction after the board passed what she called another “historic” development in the county’s most lucrative and challenging industries.
“Thank you to everybody who has been involved with this,” Fennell said to county staff after the vote on Tuesday afternoon. “You have worked so hard to respond to everything we bring to you.”
Whether the muted response to the vote was influenced more by fatigue after nearly five hours of discussion, a smaller audience or some of the controversial measures within the new rules, is unclear.
What is clear is that the new rules represent a significant change to the status quo of Humboldt County’s cannabis industry.
The ordinance — passed in a 4-1 vote with 3rd District Supervisor Mike Wilson dissenting — expands the catalogue of cannabis businesses allowed, seeks to address conflicts with less cannabis-friendly communities, applies retroactive rules to already-approved businesses, caps the number of new farms and opens the door for cannabis tourism businesses such as farm tours and “bud and breakfasts.”
One of the most significant changes made by the new ordinance is it allows the county to resume accepting cannabis business applications — at least to a certain extent.
Under the former rules, prospective cannabiz owners were given from February 2016 to Dec. 30, 2016, to submit an application. About 2,300 business applications were submitted before the deadline, mostly for farms.
No new applications were accepted by the county after that point until the county completed an environmental study on the industry — a requirement the county agreed to as part of a settlement agreement with the Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project in mid-2016.
That environmental review was completed and adopted by the board Tuesday.
The new ordinance imposes a cap on the number of new farms and limits where they can be located. Only 3,500 new farms encompassing a total of 1,200 acres will be allowed to be approved. Those farms will be split up between 12 different watersheds scattered throughout the county.
Responding to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s concerns, the board also prohibited any new farms to be approved or existing farms to be expanded in lands near 11 rivers and creeks. These waters have been identified by the state as having already been impacted by cannabis — namely through illegal diversions — or is critical habitat for species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Humboldt Redwood Healing CEO Thomas Mulder called on the board to consider exceptions for farmers in these watersheds who are able to get their water supply during the wet months in January and February or entirely from rainwater catchment systems, but these changes were not added.
Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Stephanie Tidwell called on the county to conduct studies on how many new farms local watersheds could handle before allowing any new farms or expansions. Not doing so, she said, would place threatened salmon species such as Coho in greater trouble than they’re already in.
“I just don’t see how this ordinance holds up to our obligation to protect and restore native salmonids,” Tidwell said.
The prohibition in these 11 watersheds will be in place until all pre-existing farms that were in existence prior to January 2016 are either brought into the regulatory fold or removed.
The board also adopted limits on how many large farms would be allowed and also increased the maximum acreage of cultivation a single person or entity can own from 4 acres to 8 acres.
At the same time, the board reduced the maximum amount of allowable cultivation from 12 acres to 8 acres, though before a person could only own 4 acres of cultivation and would have to lease off the remaining 8 acres.
The 8-acre farms can only occur on parcels of land that are 320 acres or larger. There about 380 of these large parcels countywide, according to county Planning and Building Director John Ford.
Only one farm located on parcel 320 acres or larger has been approved by the county so far, but Ford said there are another 30 in the application process that may be approved.
Under the new rules, only 10 of these 8-acre farms would be allowed to be permitted, not counting the 30 farms already in the application process.
Eden Farms owner Karl Witt of Redway disagreed with this 10-farm cap and called on the board to give “everyone a fair shot” to open a farm.
Changes adopted by the board on Tuesday also give these large-parcel owners the ability to add support structures to their properties such as concentrate manufacturing and processing facilities. These facilities would also be allowed to be used for up to about a quarter-acre of indoor growing if the owner gets a special permit for that.
Honeydew Farms LLC co-owner Alex Moore said this indoor allowance would allow his business to create a nursery, thereby allowing him to preserve his genetics. Moore also called on the board to allow both volatile and non-volatile concentrate extraction to occur on these larger parcels — which the board ultimately approved — to allow farms to convert their flower into oils.
He said there are not enough dispensaries or processing facilities available yet to meet the demand for all the cannabis flower being produced, thereby necessitating that flower to be converted to oils and other concentrates before it becomes too old to sell.
Mulder disagreed with these new allowances, saying the county needs to focus on smaller farms.
“We’re Humboldt. We need to be known for top quality, not a bunch of mids,” Mulder said, referring to lower quality cannabis. “Mids come out of the Central Valley, not Humboldt.”
Wilson disagreed with allowing 10,000-square-feet indoor grows that could take place on prime agricultural soils, which he said went against the original intent of the county’s rules.
One of the more controversial decisions the board made Tuesday was requiring cannabis farms and businesses that have already been approved or are in the process of being approved to comply with new — and potentially costly — rules.
Last year, Fortuna residents and city officials expressed outrage when marijuana farms were being approved just outside city limits without them being able to weigh in. The county had approved these new cannabis farms through zoning clearance certificates, which don’t require a public hearing.
Fortuna has banned all marijuana businesses and some residents have expressed disagreement with cannabis odors.
Fortuna officials have continuously called on the board to ban any new farms from being allowed within their city’s sphere of influence — the area which the city limits could potentially expand to.
Under the new rules approved Tuesday, the county will impose retroactive rules on cannabis businesses that have already been permitted within a city’s sphere of influence or within 1,000 feet of a city, tribal reservation and certain communities.
These farmers would be mandated to do one of the following: move their cultivation area at least 600 feet away from neighboring residences; move their operations into an enclosed, odor-controlled structure; go through the permitting process again but instead obtain a conditional use permit, which requires a full public hearing; or relinquish the permit altogether or relocate under the county’s farm relocation program.
Ford said about 31 businesses would be affected by these retroactive rules, as will several more people still in the permitting process.
Any new applicants planning to set up their businesses within these areas would have to obtain a conditional use permit.
Fortuna Mayor Sue Long said these “either-or” options do not solve the problem of odor control, which she said has severely impacted the quality of life for some residents.
Humboldt County Growers Alliance Executive Director Terra Carver said requiring growers who were following the rules the county created to now have to move or make costly changes to their farms because Fortuna residents and city officials voiced disagreements after the fact is “unfair, unjust and very impactful.”
Board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg was concerned about making farmers have to go through a new permitting process if their neighbors are fine with the farm.
So the board added the caveat that if a farm owner or business applicant can demonstrate to the county within 3 months that there is no opposition to their business, they will only have to obtain a special permit. The county will also be required to notify any landowners near these farms as well.
If the farmer does have to make changes or get a new permit, they will be given up to 36 months to do so.
Wilson said he would want farms located in the 11 sensitive or species critical watersheds to adhere to the same retroactive rules in order to better protect the environment. This proposal was not included in the final rules and was one of the factors resulting in Wilson’s dissenting vote.
The board also adopted a 45-day moratorium, which can be extended, that prohibits any cannabis businesses opening on the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral territory, which encompasses a significantly larger area than the tribe’s current reservation boundaries.
The moratorium is in place to allow the county to continue discussions with the tribe over environmental concerns.
The ordinance does not effect areas in the coastal zone until certified by the California Coastal Commission.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.