A capacity Humboldt County Board of Supervisors chambers erupted with long applause and cheering immediately after the board unanimously approved the county’s first-ever regulations on medical marijuana commercial cultivation at its Tuesday meeting.
The vote was the culmination of efforts by multiple organizations and county agencies since October 2014 to create a large-scale cultivation ordinance.
Outside the county courthouse, a group of cannabis advocates and growers celebrated. Local grower Patrick Murphy said that the board’s decision to craft regulations rather than implement an outright ban will reverberate throughout the state.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this,” Murphy said. “I love living in Humboldt County and I love growing cannabis. This is a historic day and I’m really happy.”
The ordinance sets permitting and land use regulations for both existing and new commercial cultivation, processing, and manufacturing practices. The ordinance allows up to 10,000 square feet of new outdoor cultivation, up to 1 acre of existing outdoor cultivation, up to about one-half acre of outdoor mixed-light grows and up to 10,000 square feet of indoor grows depending on the parcel zone. The ordinance also creates a program to incentivize growers to relocate their grows from what the county deems to be unsuitable cultivation sites to more appropriate sites, such as agricultural zones, in exchange for leaner permitting requirements.
The board’s Tuesday vote also approved the ordinance’s mitigated negative declaration, which states that the ordinance would not have any significant environmental impacts.
As a result, county staff recommended the board rein in allowances for new cultivation areas except for agriculturally zoned parcels. However, the county Planning and Building Department is set to begin performing a full environmental impact report for the next planned cultivation ordinance, which could greatly expand the county’s medical marijuana industry.
“For now this is a first step,” 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said. “The fact that we can’t change the language doesn’t mean we’re precluded from doing that in the future.”
However, some members of the public, like Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project spokesman Robert Sutherland, were not convinced the board had mitigated the environmental impacts with the ordinance and felt that the board rushed the process.
Sutherland said his organization’s attorney sent a letter to the board warning that the ordinance could violate the federal Endangered Species Act by not accounting for encroachment of cultivation sites in threatened northern spotted owl habitat, especially with the recently added allowance for some existing cultivation sites to expand.
“The county doesn’t have a good attitude on protecting the environment,” Sutherland said after the hearing.
Others like Wonderland Nursery Business Manager Luke Bruner said the ordinance is “good enough,” and is a starting point for the county to address other issues like taxation.
“Now we need to get people to sign up for this program,” Bruner said on the courthouse steps. “Now the farmers have to do their part.”
The history of the ordinance stretches back to October 2014 when the marijuana advocacy organization California Cannabis Voice Humboldt hosted a stakeholder meeting to discuss what the county’s next cannabis land use ordinance should look like.
Following several more meetings held with growers, politicians, and other groups, the organization unveiled its own draft of the ordinance and companion tax measure on the courthouse steps in June 2015. After considering the organization’s draft, the Board of Supervisors chose to create its own ordinance, with the county introducing its first draft in October 2015.
The full ordinance can be viewed online at the county website at ca-humboldtcounty.civicplus.com/2124/Medical-Marijuana-Land-Use-Ordinance.
After nearly 11 years with the county and six years as the county administrative officer, Phillip Smith-Hanes had his last meeting with the board Tuesday. In recognition of this, the board honored Smith-Hanes with a resolution commending him for his work, including leading the county budget through the recession, the development of the Measure Z public safety tax, and forming the now nationally-recognized community budget meetings.
Smith-Hanes is set to move to his home state of Kansas to work for Ellis County and to be closer to his family.
“It’s been a great experience for me,” Smith-Hanes said to the board.
Administrative Office Public Information Specialist Sean Quincey said that Smith-Hanes excelled at being able to communicate complex issues, while also retaining a sense of humor.
“You’ve been a great leader for the department and a mentor for me,” Quincey said.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said Smith-Hanes’ understood the “pulse of the whole county,” as well as reining in the budget — and supervisors — when needed.
“I appreciate your common sense and pulling me off the edge telling me, ‘You can’t say that, Rex,’” Bohn said.
As part of the board’s approved consent calender, the board authorized the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office to unfreeze a deputy position in order to assign an officer at College of the Redwoods. The college had requested the officer after recent mass shootings at schools and other public locations.
The officer’s salary and benefits will be paid for by the College of the Redwoods, according to the staff report.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.