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Pot Permits Grind To a Halt

(Not that they were moving much in the first place…)

Last Tuesday, the Supervisors discussed a misleading agenda item having to do with declaring marijuana cultivation an agricultural activity. Growing grapes to produce an intoxicating alcoholic beverage is “agriculture,” but growing marijuana to produce a drug is not agriculture, according to state law. 

Not only is this idea a likely non-starter at the state level, but Mendo’s spirits industry doesn’t want anyone horning in on their monopoly of “agricultural” intoxicants. 

Grape grower/ag rep/Farm Bureau rep, outgoing Supervisor Carre Brown, voted no even to the idea of “exploring” the possibility of the love drug as agriculture. In the end the board voted 4-1, Brown dissenting, to have the planning staff “Look into the question” and pause all the other administrative pot permit-related staff activity.

But, since the subject was pot, the discussion rambled on for over an hour, mostly about the degree to which the permit situation has become hopeless. Supervisor Williams, as usual, had the least hope and, of course, Supervisor Haschak was the most hopeful, although even Haschak conceded that hope was about all there is at the moment.

Supervisor Ted Williams opened the discussion by declaring:

“Our pot permit process is not working. The ordinance that we have does not produce documentation that can be shared with the state to trigger issuance of a state license. Cultivators need a state license to cultivate in California statewide. In our county they are operating on temporary licenses, provisional licenses. These provisional licenses expire in one year. Maybe the state will extend the deadline, but it will take legislative action for that. So far that hasn’t happened. Under the current model we have worked with staff to bundle up the documentation that we have and the state has said that it is insufficient to meet state CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] requirements. If we do additional review beyond what was called for in our ordnance we are not really sharing our work. We are getting this new work product but it’s not quite right. It doesn’t meet CEQA requirements. Supervisor McCowen was correct when he pointed out [months ago] that we would be better served with discretionary use permits similar to Humboldt County. Why do we have this problem and the rest of the state doesn’t? About 84% of the state is on provisionals. But we have a unique problem because we have a high volume of legacy cultivators. And we have not done adequate site-specific review according to CDFA [California Department of Food & Agriculture — and why that agency is involved when cannabis is apparently NOT agriculture is beyond our limited knowledge]. Humboldt County has use permits which have generated documentation to meet state CEQA. unfortunately, if we were to staff up maybe to four or five times the planning staff we have today it would take more than a decade to bring our current queue into the legal market. We can’t imagine the state extending provisionals long enough for that to happen. Our current ordinance is going nowhere and doing nothing for cultivators unless we litigate with the state and find that their interpretation of CEQA is wrong. Use permits creates a new problem too, a time problem. You can’t get through it quick enough and it’s a new expense. Treating cannabis cultivation as agriculture may be a longshot but we see other counties pursuing this direction and there may be some hope. The [cannabis] ad hoc thinks they should be explored but we don’t know if it will be an answer. We would like to use planning staff time to research it and see if it would help us. Cultivators have asked if they can do CEQA on their own and submit directly to the state. We weren’t sure. The ad hoc as resolved that question. CDFA agrees that they [cultivators] can do that. Essentially, instead of using the shortcut where the county shares the site-specific review that’s conducted, the cultivator can work directly with the state and get a state license by providing a meaningful CEQA document. But we don’t think that would cost less than $10,000 and there are estimates of as much as $80,000 per [cannabis] farm. There aren’t enough consultants in the area. We have over 1100 in our queue and if they all rushed out on New Year’s Day to get consultants it would create a backlog. CDFA calls this the nuclear option. They would prefer it not happen because they don’t have staff to process these. Counties have local control and provide documentation to meet CDFA’s CEQA requirements. They don’t have staff dedicated to processing these. It would be a one off for Mendocino County because we don’t have an ordinance that is workable for the state. In the big picture, we are at a standstill. There’s no decision to make to pause [of exploring various options] because this effort is effectively already paused everywhere. It’s like Humboldt County and Mendocino County are headed to San Francisco and Humboldt is moving 5 miles an hour and Mendocino County is moving to zero.”

Supervisor Haschak, ever-optimistic in his dream of somehow salvaging Mendo’s unworkable permit process, responded: “We are meeting with CDFA some more and representatives from [Senator] McGuire and [Assemblyman] Wood’s office and we are looking and trying to continue on with these attempts at finding a pathway forward. The general consensus is to pursue all options no matter how futile including cannabis as an agricultural activity. We hope to get clarification tomorrow. We want to continue with the biologist review because it will help everyone in the long run. If we pause that now it won’t help our relationship with the CDFW [Department of Fish & Wildlife]. We only pay for the work done, not a huge contract. Only as needed.”

“The work” in this case is for “sensitive species reviews” which involves the County paying a couple of specialized biologists on an hourly basis to review each permit application one by one to determine its impact on sensitive species at each cannabis farm site no matter how small.

Williams: “I don’t know if these sensitive species reviews will help cultivators get closer to a state license. I think they probably won’t. But they already paid the county for doing this work. Of the approximate 272 permits we issued, 90 of them we skipped over this critical aspect in our own ordinance. This created a problem, when we tried to do this band-aid approach to meet the state requirements we skipped the sensitive species habitat review. So we made a mistake at some point and these cultivators are our at risk of losing their right to cultivate.”

Supervisor John McCowen, godfather of the existing broken ordinance, pointed out that hundreds of people came forward and paid for permits when the county ordinance was rolled out under a “mitigated negative declaration” (to avoid environmental review of each permit/site.) “Then two years later the state decided that they needed these sensitive species reviews. That wasn’t provided in our ordinance. Nobody paid for that work to be done and it wasn’t provided by the county. So the question is who if anyone should pay for this work and who shall conduct it? Staff raised this question previously and the board cut short that item without answering the question and giving guidance. Do we expect these applicants to go out and hire a consultant on their own? Do we expect them to do the work themselves? Would the county do it and they pay for it? That issue never got resolved and I think that’s one of the issues recommended for deferral. I would like staff to determine if applicants already paid for the review that is now required by the state. So the question is should we pause the determination of who should pay for this work?”

Williams disagreed: “The applicants paid for the county to do that and that effort was part of the county permit.”

Planning Director Brent Schultz: “We are doing sensitive species reviews for the current active applicants. It took a year to get that process approved by CDFW and we are getting through those now. We don’t want to pause that. I can’t do anything to speed that process up. I don’t know if they will ever get back to us [approving the County’s reviews]. It’s going through their legal processes and requirements of their contract. The sensitive species reviews are happening. The problem is when we can’t self check that off on the checklist, and send it to them, they can’t do the biological studies and cover the cost and staffing. They want to hire two biologists and the current estimate is $238,000 a year and they don’t have any funding for that.”

Schultz continued, “The CEQA process is separate and requires 15-30 hours for each applicant and it could take up to 30,000 hours for all current applicants to get through. It’s a multimillion dollar process. We would need 16-20 more planners to process those and then it would go on and on and on because whenever a cultivator changes his site [and they do it all the time] they would have to change that document. Maybe even the sensitive species review. We don’t know. We don’t have that experience with that process.”

Haschak thought that maybe they could prune the 1100 number down to only those that are still active and really want the state permit and then only pay for the time they spend which might be less than $238k, adding, “But we still need the sensitive species review.”

Williams added: “We don’t know how we’re going to meet their [the state’s] demand for site-specific CEQA. We asked CDFA what they would do to get these 1100 to an annual license. And they have no answers. Prop 64 and SB 94 and all the regulation has been focused on new cultivation in counties with land that’s already disturbed and zoned as ag, commercial agriculture. We have a unique problem in that we have people who have been cultivating for decades. Getting them through the same process without state support looks impossible. But when we ask our state partners for guidance we don’t get any answers. With unlimited time and unlimited budget we could probably figure out how to connect these dots. But when you look at the available time and the resources in our area and the funds we have to work with none of these paths work. It may be a long shot but treating it as ag may help us. But without having staff focus on that path, we won’t know.”

In an attempt to determine how much work might be involved in getting the existing applicants through the process, Planning Director Schultz and his staff had reviewed 20 permit applications at random and found that only two of the 20 would meet all the requirements given the current state of their applications (some of which are years old). Schultz added that he thought the 10% number was probably representative of the entire 1100 present applicants, some of whom have withdrawn, some of whom have changed, some of whom have provisional licenses, some of whom don’t, some of whom are gone. Etc.

Williams concluded: “The County came up with a permitting system and gave cultivators and the public the impression that this is the hard part: You get your county permit and then you have to switch and figure out CEQA which is just a little extra work. But in fact being on the cannabis ad hoc for a few months I now understand that the state license is the big prize, that’s the core. Our county permit is almost irrelevant. If you don’t have a state license, you’re not cultivating [legally] in the state. So we added a bunch of hoops on top of an already difficult process. We have people getting through our County hoops but none of that leads them up to getting that state license that they need. So the fee schedules, the zoning, the details, the rules — none of that will matter in a year if we have only illegal cultivation which is where we’re headed unless... And I think that this is what Supervisor McCowen was pointing out, that the cannabis ad hoc committee has not come up with solutions, our state partners have not offered any. We have some long shots, but there is no clear path in front of us.”

* * *

DEPARTMENT OF UNINTENTIONAL HILARITY: At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting our five solons discussed replacing retiring Supervisor Carre Brown on a couple of outside organizations that Brown routinely attends to no tangible purpose — the National Association of Counties and California Rural Counties association. For the time being these “associations” meet by zoom, requiring no travel. Otherwise they convene in up-market spas around the state. When asked if he’d consider an appointment to one of them, Dan Gjerde of Fort Bragg, said that he was “too busy” to consider another large responsibility. We await constituent confirmation.

DURING that same discussion, CEO Angelo solemnly noted that replacing Supervisor Brown upon her retirement was a “bittersweet moment,” because, we assume, the CEO will be losing her most reliable yes-vote. “Carre’s inkpad is never dry,” Angelo might have said if she had a sense of humor and was drunk. It will probably take the CEO a few weeks to get the two incoming Supervisors up to the rubberstamp standard that Supervisor Brown has achieved. The two new Supes will also have to be schooled on the limit to the number minutes of staff time they can use each week in answering Supervisor questions, assuming they have one now and then. Meanwhile, Supervisor Haschak is the lead candidate to keep the Yes stamp inked.

A GRAND TOTAL OF 44 PEOPLE were logged onto the Board meeting while the Supes discussed the difficulties they’ve been having getting the word out to the public about taking proper covid precautions. The Board and staff droned on and on for over two hours, in something like the same spirit as Governor Newsom’s tiresome press conferences, apparently unaware that very few people pay attention to them or their discussions or their overly broad yet overly specific edicts. Supervisor McCowen was successful in getting most of his colleagues (Haschak dissenting) to sign on to a vague order to the local covid enforcers that they should spend more time on “gatherings” and less on businesses that do not seem to be a major source of covid spread. Supervisor McCowen scored another big success when the County’s billboard person agreed that they should include Spanish language versions of the signage content. 

* * *

A GRAND TOTAL OF 44 PEOPLE were logged onto the Board meeting while the Supes discussed the difficulties they’ve been having getting the word out to the public 

about taking proper covid precautions. The Board and staff droned on and on for over two hours, in something like the same spirit as Governor Newsom’s tiresome press conferences, apparently unaware that very few people pay attention to them or their discussions or their overly broad yet overly specific edicts. Supervisor McCowen was successful in getting most of his colleagues (Haschak dissenting) to sign on to a vague order to the local covid enforcers that they should spend more time on “gatherings” and less on businesses that do not seem to be a major source of covid spread. Supervisor McCowen scored another big success when the County’s billboard person agreed that they should include Spanish language versions of the signage content. 

* * *


CEO Carmel Angelo told the Supervisors Tuesday: “We have two freezers on order right now. The challenge of freezers is like the challenge of ventilators when we first started the pandemic. We have a promise of getting a freezer from the state. And we have ordered another freezer. We will keep this board apprized. We’re doing everything we can to get the freezers. We have a plan B if we don’t get the freezers. We had a call with the Adventists this morning and we are in agreement that we will work together on delivering the vaccines and doing everything we can here in Mendocino County for the public and to get the vaccination process going.”

* * *

CEO Angelo also told the Board about the impact of covid on staffing. 

“We have approximately 1200 employees in the county. We have employees out for various reasons. But on top of that we have up to 50 employees out on covid related reasons. Today we have 43 employees out due to covid. We have eight positive employees. We have eight close contact employees. We have 24 employees who are out for child care issues. We have three who are symptomatic and waiting to be tested and get results. Approximately 50 employees a day are out on top of employees who would routinely be out and it can impact the offices, particularly the small offices.”

Angelo told the Board that they are making adjustments to the “flexible time off” policy to accommodate this staff time loss including for employees who have to work extra hours to compensate for those out on sick or covid related leave.

* * *

IN A RECENT TRIBUTE to retiring Supervisor Carre Brown by the County’s freelance de facto press release writer Karen Rifkin we are informed of Supervisor Brown’s unspecified “advocacy” for Mendocino County on various statewide organizations, something that anyone who follows board meetings would know already because her main contribution to board meetings has been long, rambling summaries of those meetings and the topics they discuss, but never take any action on. We often wondered why Supervisor Brown was so dedicated in attending these seemingly pointless meetings since it takes a lot of time and effort and does little good. Then we read the following paragraph from Ms. Rifkin and it suddenly became clear:

“With the Ukiah Valley as a medium priority basin and no staff for the county’s water agency, she credits CSAC [the California State Association of Counties] for the role it took in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and in educating her and preparing her for the role she took in organizing other elected officials and districts to move forward with a plan. ‘If we hadn’t formed our own sustainable groundwater agency, the state would have come in and done it for us,’ said Brown, adding, ‘You want to make sure local government is not impacted negatively by any of the changes that come down from Sacramento’.”

Translation: As head of the Potter Valley Cheap Water Mafia Supervisor Brown realized it was her job to use her position as Supervisor to do everything possible to maintain the flow of cheap water to herself and her Potter Valley constituents, going so far as to set up a local agency packed with her fellow water mafia members (aka “elected officials”) to keep the state from meddling in Potter Valley water affairs [i.e., “local government”]. Otherwise, the state might go so far as to impose restrictions on vineyard water usage like they do on everybody else, especially pot growers. As far as we can tell she did that job quite well. Will her replacement Glenn McGourty continue in the grand tradition of Supervisor Brown? We assume so, because there’s no other real reason for him to have even run for the position. All we ask from Supervisor McGourty is that he spare us the long, boring summaries of these nebulous organizations and their pointless meetings unless there’s a direct Mendo angle.

* * *

APPARENTLY, that “Strategic Plan” for Measure B presented back in October was never intended to be distributed, much less constitute a strategic plan, although at the time it certainly seemed like it. Typical of almost everything involving Measure B it’s muddy. 

On next Tuesday’s Board agenda there will be a Measure B discussion entitled “BOS Measure B Ad Hoc Committee of Supervisors Haschak and Williams,” which is a loosely organized series of answers to questions posed by Haschak and Williams regarding Project Manager Alyson Bailey’s “strategic plan.” 

In the attachment Ms. Bailey attempts to answer the questions. At the end, she simply states, “No one signed off on this document, including myself. There was a misunderstanding regarding when it would be submitted and under what conditions.” 

But Ms. Bailey herself put it on the Supes agenda on November 3 under the title “Strategic Plan: Mental Health Treatment Act (Measure B) DRAFT-October 2020.” We gather from statements made by Supervisor Ted Williams that the Board is going to be taking a more active role in Measure B, seeing as how the Measure B Committee and staff aren’t getting much done, and what they have done is not the top priority of the Supervisors. 

* * *

ALSO on this week’s agenda is an item to review the Supes ad hoc committees with an eye toward disbanding them. What’s interesting about this is that there are committees we either never heard of or had forgotten about mainly because covid-19 intervened. For example: 

There’s an ad committee to “examine cannabis tax revenue available for the purposes specified in Measure AJ” which is the advisory measure that passed by in 2016 saying that proceeds from the pot tax should go to mental health, roads, emergency services and cannabis permit enforcement. Obviously, none of that happened and the County has ignored the will of the voters. 

There’s an Ad Hoc Committee “to work with Measure B Staff and Measure B Committee as needed to develop a business plan and formulate a common set of goals, including the development of a PHF unit” which was done but so far there’s no business plan and the last time the subject came up Supervisor Williams said he had “capitulated” and was no longer expecting the Measure B Committee or staff to come up with a plan.

The Board also has a committee “to work with County Staff to discuss policies and procedures for placing items on BOS Agendas.” Funny, we thought the elected officials and staff could put any item they wanted on the agenda, even if sometimes they had to be put off. But no, all such items must be approved by the CEO.

We had forgotten also that the Supes had formed “an Ad Hoc Committee regarding hack and squirt ‘Measure V’ (Motion to direct code enforcement to investigate a documented first complaint regarding Hack and Squirt and return to the Board within 30 days; and formation of an Ad Hoc Committee.) (Williams, Haschak)” 

The last time this was discussed Code Enforcement Consultant Trent Taylor said he went out and looked but the complainant wasn’t home and he couldn’t tell which parcel was alleged to have been in violation. And that was that.

Then there’s “Formation of an Ad Hoc Committee to bring forward recommendations to reduce street-level homelessness in Mendocino County.” Needless to say, that one is a complete dead letter except for the “Continuum of Care” whose main objective is continuing their funding, not reducing street level homelessness. 

This item is “sponsored by the Executive Office,” meaning that the item is on the agenda because two Supervisors are leaving the Board and two new ones are coming in and CEO Angelo probably wants to do away with all these pesky ad hocs in hopes that the new board won’t bother re-establishing them next year. 

* * *

SOLID WASTE MATTERS of a sort were discussed at last Tuesday’s Supervisors meeting, but because of a crowded agenda and lots of covid and pot talk the leadership didn’t get to the subject until well after 6pm, toward the end of a ten-hour meeting. The good news: Apparently the “Taj McSweeney,” a new transfer station on Highway 20 east of Fort Bragg, has been abandoned. Long-time readers may recall that before he departed for New Zealand exile, Mendo’s trash czar and likely car-bomber of his wife Judi Bari, Mike Sweeney had hornswaggled the then-Supes and the then-Fort Bragg City Council — Gjerde running point — to approve an EIR and possible funding stream for a completely unnecessary multi-million dollar trash/recycle operation on Highway 20, complete with a thick, bogus and costly Environmental Impact Report. At the time Supervisor Gjerde defended the boondoggle because it saved a couple of northbound garbage trucks from — gasp! — driving through town to the existing transfer station north of Fort Bragg. 

Gjerde is the only elected solon left who defended Taj McSweeney, so apparently the County is now going back to the drawing board. The subject arose because County Transportation Director Howard Dashiell, who handles Solid Waste matters in the absence of anybody else, needed to send a letter to Solid Waste of Willits telling them that he intended to extend SWOW’s contract for hauling trash outta Caspar for at least another six months. SWOW owner Jerry Ward joined the discussion to say that he was losing money on every pick up at Caspar because the Caspar Transfer Station is not designed to be compatible with his trucks and the pickup process is time consuming and inefficient. Ward said he wouldn’t accept an extension unless he got upwards of $1 more per cubic yard. Supervisor McCowen noted that he understood that roofing trash was no longer being accepted at the Caspar station and such high volume trash had to be self-hauled to Willits, another a lousy situation. 

This then lead to a broader discussion of what’s going to be done for trash pickup on the Coast now that Taj McSweeney is off the table. Perhaps the Caspar Transfer Station could be upgraded to handle modern trucks, but the locals in Caspar are expected to oppose that option, and there’s nowhere near enough money in the Taj McSweeney fund, and Ward says he won’t do it out of pocket. There was also a good bit of grumbling about Waste Management, which has the contract for the Fort Bragg city trash. There was interest in putting that contract out for bid, but to do that would require a short-term extension of WMI’s existing contract. Or a six month short term add-on contract. WMI has said they wouldn’t consider anything but a five-year extension. 

Upshot: Rates are going up, of course. And the problem(s) will be put to the Coast Trash Coordinating Committee (or whatever it’s called) made up of Fort Bragg City Council reps and the two Coastal Supervisors, Gjerde and Ted Williams. Meanwhile Dashiell said he’d proceed with the letter to SWOW and a request for a contract extension to WMI, long-shot though it may be.

One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn December 17, 2020

    About the indoctrination of new supervisors by the county CEO: Cal State Sacramento used to deliver a three-day, in-house, elected-officials-only special “training” for incoming elected supervisors, for which the public paid $3,000 a pop back in 2006 (no idea what the price has been since then). At that time, approval of the expenditure was on the agenda for the sitting Board of Supervisors (the usual consent agenda item), but it has since disappeared from sight.

    The incoming new supervisor in Lake County representing District 5 (Cobb and Kelseyville) “attended” in a virtual meeting of a Brown Act compliant “standing committee” meeting in which she had been involved since its inception (formed by the new Lake County “Community Risk Reduction Authority” a few months ago) but informed the rest of the attendees that she could not “participate” because of her new status. As we understand it, once an official election determination is certified by the Registrar of Voters, the individual becomes a public official with strict legal obligations, but we don’t know exactly what they are — responsibility for emergency management and confidentiality of communications is a guess. Certainly the regular Brown Act restrictions regarding communications with other elected supervisors. But the procedures for this transitional form of public service are — if written anywhere — buried in the volume we call the “Secret Supervisors Book” (of policies and procedures) that access to has been denied by the last two county Administrative Officers. There is more to the operations of county administration than meets the eye, including who buys that rubber stamp ink we pay for. Solidaridaj.

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