Sonoma County supervisors punted Tuesday on a proposal to make it easier for cannabis growers to obtain a permit from the county, saying further examination of the environmental effects and more public input is needed.
The proposed rules, approved by the county Planning Commission and more than a year in development, would have given the county’s agricultural commissioner more leeway to issue permits for cannabis cultivation and removed a 1-acre cap on marijuana crops for farms of 10 acres or more.
Multiple board members noted that while the county has not acted with haste to adapt its regulations concerning cannabis growth, the proposal considered Tuesday did not have enough input from county residents, particularly those who live in more rural areas of the county and would be closest to new and larger cannabis grows.
“It’s very frustrating to the communities that we represent and I think it’s also very demoralizing to staff to have worked for a year and a half only to come up what feels like empty handed and sort of having to reset and start all over,” said Lynda Hopkins, board chair.
Hopkins and Supervisor David Rabbitt both suggested the county should also apologize to its residents for failing to make meaningful progress on land use code updates for cannabis growth.
“I feel like we’ve been spinning our wheels and haven’t made much progress,” Rabbitt said. “And for that, we should apologize because I think we haven’t done any favors for the industry, for the neighbors or the county itself.”
The board and public commenters also questioned the proposal’s lack of an environmental impact report as required under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Completing an EIR would take between a year and 18 months, according to county officials, but the board declined to move forward without one as well as a future set of community workshops to ensure that both cannabis growers and residents are satisfied with future changes to the local land use code.
“We need this report,” Supervisor Chris Coursey said. “We need the technical studies so we can make decisions based on facts instead of anecdotes and speculation.”
Rural residents had argued that easing the ability to grow cannabis would have multiple negative effects on their neighborhoods and the county, including increased odor, crime, and water use when the region is already suffering from a critically low water supply.
“The solution is small cannabis grows away from residences, not in public view, and not spreading noise or odor,” a coalition of residents opposed to the proposal wrote earlier this month in a letter to the board. “This is not what is proposed.”
Given the board’s schedule in the coming months, including voting on the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the board would not be able to hold a workshop on cannabis grows and the land use code until November or December, according to county officials.
County-hosted town halls on the subject would also not likely be held until the summer and fall.
“Going forward, we need to do better,” Hopkins said. “And I think that we all learned a lesson that we need to really work on front loading and in-depth legal risk analysis for any kind of land use project or ordinance change that we are embarking on as a county.”