Sonoma County’s move to recognize and regulate thousands of marijuana growers has triggered a high-stakes battle between pot producers intent on protecting their livelihood and rural residents who want cannabis cultivation pushed as far as possible from their homes.
It’s a land-use conflict that may have no satisfactory solution for either the estimated 3,000 marijuana growers or the 81,000 people living on land designated for residential use in the unincorporated area outside the county’s nine cities.
And it’s a culture clash between cannabis entrepreneurs who for decades have raised, in the legal shadows, an intoxicating crop that could rival the wine grape industry in value versus residents who say the proliferation of pot gardens is destroying their quality-of-life and diminishing property values in their rural neighborhoods.
Pot producers, meanwhile, are concerned that 70 percent of the 31,383 properties on rural residential land are too small to meet the county’s proposed 2-acre minimum lot size for small grows.
Kathleen Whitener, who’s lived on a Willowside area cul de sac for 31 years, said she no longer enjoys gardening in her back yard, with a feeder that attracts green hummingbirds and an ash tree for shade.
“Now I just feel creepy out there,” she said.
Video cameras mounted on the house next door have invaded her sense of privacy, prompting Whitener to keep blinds drawn on the windows facing that way.
Mike Whitener, Kathleen’s husband, is no longer making improvements to the home he has lovingly restored, pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the 1,800-square-foot stucco home and building equity for the couple’s retirement.
The Whiteners said they have watched in horror as the house next door, once owned by a gentleman who raised giant pumpkins, has been transformed since it changed hands 15 months ago. A 1,000-square-foot outbuilding, barely visible behind new solid wood fences, has been converted to an apparent marijuana garden.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Kathleen Whitener said. “We’re not going to be able to sell our house.”
Mike Whitener imagined a worse scenario: a “domino effect” that would transform homes, one by one down the street, into grow sites.
After a series of clashes in public hearings at the county’s Planning Commission, rural residents and marijuana growers are gearing up for the Board of Supervisors’ first hearing Tuesday on a proposed zoning ordinance that will determine where medical cannabis can be grown for profit.
The move is also intended to lay the groundwork for the county’s regulatory approach to marijuana cultivation under Proposition 64, which legalized adult recreational cannabis use.
The flashpoint lies in the county staff recommendation to allow so-called “cottage” cultivation — 25 plants outdoors, 500 square feet indoors or 2,500 square feet in greenhouses — on rural residential lots of at least two acres, a standard only 30 percent of properties meet.
Commercial cultivation of up to an acre of marijuana outdoors and up to 22,000 square feet indoors would be permitted in agricultural, industrial and rural resources zones.
The proposed land-use measure also allows residents to grow six plants or up to 100 square feet per residence for personal consumption, essentially matching the provisions of Proposition 64.
The Whiteners are part of a residents’ group that has mounted a petition urging the supervisors to prohibit all commercial pot cultivation in the county’s rural residential zones. It had 365 signatures Saturday and strong support from one board member.
Supervisor James Gore, who represents the north county, including the Willowside area, said he supports medical marijuana but is flatly opposed to commercial cultivation in rural residential areas.
“This about neighborhoods. This is about community,” he said. At one meeting with residents disturbed by pot grows, Gore said he “met 10 families who are screaming for help.”
About 80 percent of Sonoma County’s marijuana cultivation is in the rural residential and rural resource development zones for a reason, he said. “It’s been illegal. That’s the best place to hide it.”
Now it should be located in agricultural, industrial or commercial zones, Gore said.
Supervisor David Rabbitt said he questions how cottage grows would benefit the rural neighborhoods of his south county district. “I need to be convinced that it’s something we should do,” he said, citing the problems with odor and public safety related to marijuana cultivation.
Supervisor Susan Gorin, one of two members of the board’s ad hoc committee that helped draft the zoning ordinance, said she was concerned about the “transformation of our neighborhoods.”
Pot cultivation on rural lands might best be decided “on a site-by-site basis,” she said, adding that some growers might have to relocate to larger properties.
The board, scheduled to adopt the zoning ordinance at a second public hearing Dec. 13, is likely to make changes in the measure, Gorin said.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the other ad hoc committee member, said he is maintaining “an open mind” on the measure.
Prohibiting cultivation won’t solve neighborhood issues, he said, contending it would push growers “into the shadows” where they would continue their current operations. A regulatory framework, backed up by county code enforcement efforts, would better address nuisance issues, Carrillo said.
The board’s goal should be to “strike a delicate balance” that allows the marijuana industry to thrive while protecting the environment and neighborhoods, he said.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane wouldn’t elaborate on her stance prior to the hearings. She said she hopes to get growers into compliance with county standards and maintain public safety in rural residential areas.
Outgoing Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, who as an attorney represents cannabis businesses, said the marijuana industry should be regarded as part of Sonoma County’s “strong and proud” agricultural heritage.
Other farming operations, such as raising hogs and dairy cattle, involve strong odors, she said.
The proposed zoning measure “creates the illusion” of permitting cannabis cultivation, Carlstrom said, but the 2-acre minimum rural residential lot size will effect a “prohibition that will cost people” their livelihoods.
Permit cultivation fees and other costs, including a county marijuana tax, also will “put a squeeze” on growers who will choose to remain in the underground economy, she said. Carlstrom’s single term on the City Council ends Tuesday.
Timothy Hedges, a real estate broker who works with cannabis growers, said the zoning ordinance threatens the existence of the so-called “mom and pop” farms that are “everything we’re about in Sonoma County.”
It’s unrealistic to expect growers to buy 2-acre or larger properties because that land is “extremely hard to come by” and is selling for premium prices, he said. The notion that all pot growers are rich is inaccurate, Hedges said, asserting that some are “just making a living.”
Prices for some properties that meet the proposed zoning standards have gone up 25 to 50 percent since the ordinance was introduced, he said.
Either the minimum lot size for cottage grows should be reduced, or the scope of farming on small lots should be revised to as low as 12 plants outdoors or 500 square feet indoors, he said.
Without greater flexibility, the zoning measure might backfire by causing many grows to remain outside the law, Hedges said.
But rural residents like the Whiteners, who would prefer to see cultivation banned in rural neighborhoods or the minimum lot size increased to 5 acres, are counting on the two-acre standards, at the least, to eliminate the annoyance on one acre next to their home.
The pot garden planted this year next to Linda Ortiz’s home on unincorporated land in Montecito Heights is also on a single acre. Tenants put up an unsightly plastic fence around the lot, blocked a seasonal creek that flows through both properties and covered the home’s windows from the inside with black plastic.
The tenants said they planned to grow 40 plants, but Ortiz, a 45-year resident, said she could only smell but not see what grew this summer. The odor was “like skunk stink under your nose all the time,” she said.
“It was horrible,” Ortiz said, adding that her asthma forced her to stop sitting on her backyard deck.
Operations like that “just don’t belong in a residential area. It changes the whole atmosphere,” she said.
Nancy and Brantly Richardson said their Bennett Valley subdivision, where they have lived since 1974, has become a magnet for pot growers because most homes are on an acre or less with detached garages or outbuildings.
At least three homes, including the one next to hers, have been converted by tenants or new owners to marijuana grows. A young woman from Mendocino County acquired the neighboring home and immediately put up an 8-foot fence, which the Richardsons reported as a code violation.
They can’t see what’s going on behind the fence, but the county record of a permit for a 400-amp electrical panel raises a “red flag” of suspicion the house is an indoor grow, Nancy Richardson said.
The onset of pot growers is “heartbreaking,” she said. “It changed the neighborhood.”
County code enforcement officers cannot necessarily investigate a suspected indoor grow, said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning agency.
Wick, who said he was familiar with the home next to the Whiteners, said his officers can’t enter the outbuilding because they are bound by the same standards as police and need probable cause to search a private structure.
Depending on how the zoning ordinance is ultimately crafted, Wick said he will need to hire four to eight more code enforcement officers, plus a supervisor and support staff person, among other county personnel needs to handle regulation of medical cannabis operations.
Most permitting will not begin until county voters approve a marijuana tax to cover those costs, Wick said. A tax vote is anticipated in March.
Residents opposed to neighboring pot operations scored a victory earlier this year when the county obtained a temporary court order shutting down a large marijuana cultivation site on an 83 acres west of Cloverdale because of an alleged violation of building codes.
Larry Lossing, a Cherry Creek Road resident, said he could see the ridgetop development, including two large greenhouses, from his home on another ridgetop a mile or two away. Vehicle traffic, including large black SUVs with darkened windows, has stopped and lights are no longer shining at the project, he said.
But in Cloverdale, people are going around telling residents that “if you have property, we’ll buy it,” Lossing said.
The county’s officialdom has “bought into the idea that we’re going to be part of the marijuana economy,” he said, a decision that he said did not appear to have been deliberated in public.
County officials said the numerous meetings, workshops, and Planning Commission public hearings, resulted in the zoning ordinance supervisors will consider Tuesday afternoon.
“However this ordinance plays out, it’s going to set the playbook for operators” like the one next door to him, Mike Whitener said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.
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