The County of Humboldt has received more than $1.2 million out of $2.2 million in total payments from growers suspected of cultivating cannabis without a permit.
In the past two years, the county has sent out more than 600 notices and received money from either fines or compliance agreements signed by growers.
When a farmer receives an “abatement” notice, or a note from the county Planning Department saying to shut down an agricultural setup, the grower has 10 days to either close down shop, sign a compliance agreement or successfully appeal the notice. If they don’t take any of those steps, they incur a $10,000 penalty per day violation each day.
Most abatement notices sent out by the county have to do with unpermitted cannabis farms.
All the money incurred from these payments, made up fines and compliance agreement fees, will go to the county’s general fund, said Bob Russell, the county’s deputy planning director.
“It’s not about the fines, though fines are a great deterrent,” he said. “The endgame for us is to get the property restored. We’re not going in on the basis of making money off fines.”
Gauging how much money the county has made down to the dollars and cents is a tough process, Russell said, since the hundreds of abatement processes might be in different stages of response or appeal hearings.
Sometimes, cannabis growers don’t respond at all. When those growers hit 30 days past the initial response period, they might be on the hook for up to $900,000 in fines.
In a compliance agreement, the county and the grower sign a contract to agree on how environmental issues posed by a farming setup or unpermitted cannabis cultivation can be resolved.
Sometimes abatement notices have to do with the potential danger a cannabis grow may be imposing on the surrounding environment. Unlicensed growers have been cited for clearing forestland and polluting water streams with their practices.
But other times, the abatement notices simply target growers who haven’t yet secured permits or licenses. And for many growers, that process is too financially crippling to be viable.
“It can get really, really expensive to comply,” said Thomas Mulder of Humboldt Redwood Healing, a licensed local growing organization. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
In the past, growers have railed against what they call “astronomical” fees associated with licensing. Eugene Denson, a Southern Humboldt attorney, has said the fees and especially the $10,000 fine amount was “cruel and unusual” punishment.
But the fines are avoidable, Mulder said, so long as growers get in touch with the planning department.
“All the people I know who got abatement notices avoided the fines,” he said. “As long as you provide proof of cleaning up within those 10 days, you’re good.”
The county has given temporary permits to unlicensed growers, repeatedly extending the permit expiration date. Currently, interim permits are set to expire in December, but Mulder suspects the county will extend them again.
“The county is trying to support the regulated industry,” he said. “As long as you talk to them with respect and professionalism, they’ll support you.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.