Ill property owners fight $450K in cannabis abatement fines

Parcel received notices for grows done without owners' consent

The use of satellite imagery boosted cannabis code enforcement by an estimated 700% in 2018. That method was used to issue cannabis abatement notices to Christina Dowling and Michael Shamel’s Ettersburg property, though neither of them have lived on the property for a couple of years and neither permitted cannabis to be grown there. (Humbold County Sheriff’s Office contributed)

Christina Dowling has Stage 4 lung cancer, brain cancer and a host of other medical issues. Michael Shamel has osteoporosis, broke his hip in 2011, and has had steel rods in his hip and leg since. The two own property together in Ettersburg that neither has visited since 2015. But then the property began receiving cannabis abatement notices.

Using satellite imagery in the summer of 2018, Humboldt County Code Enforcement discovered five greenhouses on the property that it believed were being used to grow cannabis and sent out a cannabis abatement notice. Despite Shamel taking down the greenhouses twice, they sprung back up, and now the county is asking for roughly $450,000 from the property owners that neither said they can afford.

“I don’t make a whole lot of money,” Shamel said at their cannabis abatement hearing at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Friday morning.

Shamel has been working as an in-home care provider, which typically make around minimum wage, for his ill mother for the past three years and his late father before that. Dowling has been trying to live off savings, which she said are running low, and has to rely primarily on friends and family to get by, with some hunting and fishing thrown in for sustenance.

The county wasn’t made aware of the property owners’ health conditions and inability to pay before the hearing, said John Nguyen, Humboldt County’s deputy county counsel. However, legally the property owners are still the ones responsible for what occurs on their property, he said.

The abatement notice was for the unpermitted greenhouses, which must be permitted if they’re over 120 square feet, and for cannabis cultivation operations, which also require a permit. But both Dowling and Shamel testified that neither of them constructed the greenhouses nor did they allow anyone else to build them and grow cannabis.

“You heard testimony from the property owners today they have no connection with cannabis cultivation or any of the unpermitted structures,” Nguyen said. “But the duty for them arises just because of their sole control and possession of the land.”

Upon receiving an abatement notice from Code Enforcement, the recipients have 10 days to take care of the violations, after which fines begin to accrue, according to Humboldt County’s municipal code regarding nuisances and abatements.

Shamel said he was able to enlist the help of friends and family to take down some of the greenhouses constructed of PVC pipes, but a couple were made from heavier metal that was too heavy. At that time, he didn’t find any cannabis in the greenhouses.

But the greenhouses popped back up a few months later and contained 2,099 cannabis plants that were seized by the Sheriff’s Office.

Shamel said he locked the gate to the property, which is 8 miles up a rough dirt road, but that there were two other entrances to the property that he wasn’t sure were locked.

Cannabis cultivation is a Category 4 violation, said Brian Bowes, who works on cannabis cases in Code Enforcement, which allows for penalties between $6,000 and $10,000 per day. While the county could have collected closer to $900,000, Bowes said they tried to come to a middle ground, which was $453,806.73.

Nguyen said he wasn’t directly involved in drafting the policy language, but it was drafted based on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors’ direction.

“My understanding is based on the board’s direction, it specified specifically cannabis cultivation for Category 4,” Nguyen said. “And that’s one of the reasons why it was added specifically in our county code for commercial cannabis cultivation.”

Eugene Denson, the attorney representing Dowling and Shamel, said the abatement process has been going after primarily small growers or people like his clients, making millions off of them in the process.

“It’s quite unjust,” Denson said, especially since Dowling is terminally ill.

Denson also took issue with the fact the independent hearing officer for the abatement hearing, Kimberly Buchholz, of California Hearing Officers LLP, was hired by the county and has a vested interest in maintaining that business with it.

He asked Buchholz to recuse herself, but she declined. Buchholz said she’s decided a handful of these cannabis abatement hearings and didn’t always decide in favor of the county, sometimes coming to a conclusion that only some of the violations applied.

“I believe I am an impartial hearing officer,” Buchholz said. “I have demonstrated no bias in preparation for this hearing or any other hearings that I have presided over.”

A determination about the case will be made by Buchholz at a later date.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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