bloomin photo cannabis farmer.jpg

Cannabis Farmers And Rural Residents Still At Odds In Sonoma County

By Roger Malspin    photo/istock/t:demaerre

As the rules and regulations for a legal cannabis industry fall into place in California, one of the most contentious issues continues to be the location of cannabis farms in rural areas. In Sonoma County, the voices of growers and rural residents are front and center for county supervisors as they work on revisions to the current rules in order to balance out their competing interests. Growers are looking to expand their cultivative flexibility while anti-cannabis residents are lobbying for much tighter restrictions.

The new meeting comes 4 months after another marathon session where pro and anti pot advocates voiced their concerns and has had supervisors struggling to make a compromise that addresses both sides’ concerns. It’s proving to be easier said than done. Under a current plan proposed by county staff, smaller pot farms would be subject to a more thorough permitting process than larger ones, while residents could seek special zoning designations to ban cultivation in their neighborhoods.

Smaller farms are defined as those which are 10 acres or fewer. The reason why these smaller farms face more restrictions is because they are much more likely than the larger ones to be near neighborhood staples like parks and schools. The smaller farms are subject to a more thorough permitting process than larger ones, while residents could seek special zoning designations to ban cultivation in their neighborhoods.

“I think the neighbors will walk away probably not as happy as they’d like to be, and that’s probably true of the industry itself,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s vice chairman.
Rabbitt said he’s looking forward to a “robust discussion,” though he’s still unsure whether land-use policy is the best way to steer pot farms toward sites where they’ll avoid strong neighborhood opposition.

Under the proposal, cultivators would need to get a land-use permit to grow on properties smaller than 10 acres in unincorporated zones where pot farms are currently allowed. The use permits required by the county are a problem for the smaller operations because of the expensive and timely process.

Although the pro-cannabis side is willing to make some concessions, exclusion zones are a sticking point that they call bad policy. Residents opposed to farms in their areas can lobby to make their town an exclusion zone, and some have already succeeded. Alexa Wall, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance (SCGA) echoed those concerns.

“It’s a permanent solution for kind of temporary issues, because what happens if neighbors change?” she said. “People move. They come and go. The fear that surrounds an operation now may not be there (later).”

Currently, farms are not allowed to be within 1000 feet from the properties of various neighborhood institutions, and in some areas furthering the limit would essentially render smaller startups obsolete in them. The larger farms, invariably backed by large investments or private fortunes, have much less to fear from the zoning restrictions because they have the capital to farm further away on larger property. 

The cannabis industry is still new and set to make billions over the next few years, but undoubtedly difficult to break into without significant financial capital. Between a high volume of competition and unclear future viability, smaller operators start with their backs against the wall. The further zoning restrictions, with their added time and expenses, could be the nail in the coffin for many. 

After clearing the first round of cannabis ordinance amendments, Sonoma county staff plan to launch a more thorough analysis of neighborhood compatibility rules and other issues. That effort is expect to start in September and last up to a year and a half.