Neither side has backed down in a debate over whether an indoor cannabis cultivation in the Fortuna area violates the city’s policies.
At its Tuesday meeting, the county Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on nonprofit growing organization Humboldt Boutique Gardens, which the county planning commission approved for a parcel of land near the Rohnerville Airport.
For Ian Herndon, Boutique Gardens president, Tuesday’s meeting is shaping up to be the culmination of a nearly two-year struggle to get the location up and running.
“There just aren’t any other areas to open indoor cannabis cultivation,” he said.
Existing rules say indoor grows can only go up on industrial land, but much of the county’s former logging and mill land is squared off for “legacy” reasons, he said.
As a result, he said, this Drake Hill Road lot, a now almost-vacant business park, is the most viable fit — except it’s located two blocks away from a high concentration of Fortuna residences.
Considering more than half of Fortuna voters sided against California’s Proposition 64, which decriminalized recreational cannabis in the 2016 election, Herndon’s proposed grow has been a tough sell.
Soon after the commission granted its approval to Humboldt Boutique Gardens, the Fortuna City Council appealed the decision, citing concerns over potential environmental impacts, odors and crime. It also took issue with the county’s level of communication with local officials before granting the permit. Now, Fortuna officials are saying the cannabis grow doesn’t even comply with the city’s general plan.
“The city feels like it’s not being listened to,” said Merritt Perry, Fortuna’s city manager. “We’re concerned the placement of a cannabis grow near residences is going to be bad for property values.”
Perry pointed to a portion of language on a county zoning ordinance outlining what kind of businesses are allowed special permits on that and other parcels of land. The language might be the key to the supervisors swatting down the operation, though 3rd District Planning Commissioner Noah Levy said Fortuna’s new “legal analysis” take on zoning laws is simply justification for the city’s political disagreements with legal cannabis.
While Fortuna already prohibits marijuana sales, the site of this potential business doesn’t fall within the city’s actual boundaries. Instead, it’s within the city’s “sphere of influence,” meaning certain city services extend to it. Fortuna does have the option of annexing the area, where a densely populated region overwhelmingly opposes the grow, Perry said.
Out of 154 residents interviewed in the area, 150 said they oppose cannabis sales, Perry said. He conceded odors are far worse in other outdoor cannabis grows in the city, but insisted the area’s citizenry should have been properly consulted before Humboldt Boutique Gardens received the go-ahead.
Herndon said there shouldn’t be any environmental concerns with the new location because engineering reports indicate everything is solid. His organization is simply “taking the heat” from the city after other, outdoor grows were approved without the city being notified.
“Because we’re in a warehouse, we’re able to mitigate the potential issues,” he said, adding that odors, environmental concerns and crime won’t be a problem with a legitimate business like his. But the real burden is on him to prove that with actions, he said.
Sentiments toward cannabis are on the upswing, Herndon said, noting that some locals who spoke to him seemed to come around to the idea of a cannabis operation when they put a face to a name, switching out a preconceived image of a seedy drug dealer with a legitimate, hard-working businessman.
“I understand there’s opposition in the city, but the key is to do business the right way, be respectful and responsible and try to bridge the gap between people, while creating good-paying jobs and tax revenue,” he said.
When Herndon heard about the Fortuna population’s largely conservative stance toward cannabis, he began reaching out to locals to try to secure more support.
Levy said the commission was “moved” by Herndon’s efforts to ensure residents knew his business would be safe and beneficial.
“He went to lengths that I’m not aware of any other applicant doing during my time on the commission,” Levy said.
A point of note with the land parcel is its ownership: former 4th District Commissioner Kevin McKenny, who stepped down in May, is listed as the land’s owner. According to Levy, this isn’t out of the ordinary, since many of the county planning commissioners are also developers. He opined it isn’t a conflict-of-interest, especially because McKenny is no longer on the commission.
Further, he said, the Fortuna residents’ opinions should never be the biggest factor in these decisions.
“It would be arbitrary and capricious and unfair to deny this permit,” he said. “A certain segment of population will be unhappy, but our job is not to put this to popular vote.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.