Chris Brennan first learned about the proliferation of marijuana cultivation sites on Stuart Bewley's 14,000-acre Adanac Ranch this past July when he fielded a phone call from then-Third District Supervisor Tom Woodhouse. The erstwhile real estate agent-turned-elected representative informed Brennan of complaints he had received concerning Bewley's violations of a newly-adopted county “urgency ordinance” which offers permits to cannabis growers, albeit with numerous stipulations. Brennan, a north county resident going back nearly four decades, says he has hunted and cowboyed on Bewley's land "more times than I can count,” he tells me.
Woodhouse wanted to know what Brennan could tell him concerning multiple reports of new greenhouses, ponds, roads, and building pads on Bewley's sprawling rangeland, as well as its previous land-use history. Soon after, Brennan took a gander at Bewley's property from from the vantage point of his horse corral and noticed grows in excess of 100 plants. None had existed the previous year. He further confirmed the grows' existence, as well as the fact that they were of 2016 vintage, through an examination via Google Earth. He became further concerned upon hearing rumors concerning Bewley's intentions to expand his Adanac cannabis operation even further. Brennan was worried the land next to him — some of the county's richest and most intact wildlife habitat — was about to become a Love Drug-induced ecological sacrifice zone. “I've seen an incredible amount of wildlife on Adanac: black-tailed dear, Roosevelt elk, bears, Humboldt Martens, and more Pacific fishers than you can count on Adanac,” he says. “There are also three fish-bearing waterways on that property, and salmon and trout spawn at the bottom of all of 'em. … I don't want to see it broken up, and I don't want to see it destroyed."
The county's urgency ordinance, adopted in June 2016, directs the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office not to issue permits for grows not already in place prior to January 1, 2016. It also forbids the establishment of cannabis patches in excess of 25 plants on multiple parcels under common ownership. Yet, as Brennan soon learned, Mendocino County Sheriff's Captain Randy Johnson – the administrator of the county's legal weed program — had issued Bewley and associates permits for brand-new 99-plant grows on five separate parcels within Bewley's sprawling 102-parcel landholding. Brennan says he phoned Johnson numerous times to complain, but he never heard back. Johnson's assistant did inform him in an August 12th conversation, he says, that no inspections of Bewley's property had yet taken place. Brennan next wrote a letter to all five county supervisors and CC'd it to Sheriff Tom Allman and County Counsel Kit Elliott.
Meanwhile, Second District Supervisor John McCowen had received a complaint back in July from another Bewley neighbor about the violations of the Urgency Ordinance, prompting him to approach County Counsel Kit Elliott about having the issue promptly addressed. McCowen was adamant, he says, about preserving the credibility of the Urgency Ordinance, which he worked hard to help craft.
Yet, despite all these protestations, the Sheriff's Department never rescinded any of the Bewley grow permits. For its part, County Counsel only offered a legal opinion concerning Bewley's grows after the cultivation season was over.
In an interview, Johnson acknowledged that Adanac Ranch's grows had “issues.” But he says his department was overwhelmed by the volume of permit applications it received – including 342 on a single day in June – and also hamstrung by a lack of personnel to process the permits and conduct site inspections. Johnson also says the Sheriff's Office chose to maintain “flexibility” in its application of the urgency ordinance rules, so that growers feel safe to come out of the shadows of illicit cultivation and into the light of a work-in-progress legal cultivation framework. “You don't take something that's been illegal, ask the people growing it now to be regulated, and expect that they're going to be 100 percent compliant,” Johnson says. “I have to use discretion to determine what's legal, [and also] what's logical.”
But critics note that Stuart Bewley, far from having operated in the shadows of the cannabis industry previously, was an entirely new grower in 2016. They say that county authorities' collective failure to act on clear violations of the urgency ordinance, documented in a complaint by a well-known and credible local resident, severely undermine the effort to create a workable ordinance that protects both existing growers and the ecological integrity of the county's land and water. “Based on this experience," Supervisor McCowen says, "the County has a long way to go in showing that it is actually capable of enforcing its own ordinances."
McCowen says the flimsy enforcement of the Urgency Ordinance is an especially sharp concern as the county gears up to adopt a new Medical Cannabis Ordinance, which they will (did) discuss at their February 7th meeting, just after this issue of the AVA goes to press. If adopted, this new legislation would govern the county's legal cultivation program for the foreseeable future, making it perhaps one of the most significant land-use decisions the Board of Supervisors has ever made.
The Urgency Ordinance allowed cultivators to grow up to 99 plants on a 10-acre parcel with a permit from the Sheriff’s Office. Up to 50 plants can be grown on 5 acres with a permit.
On January 19th, the County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to issue recommendations concerning the new Cannabis Ordinance to the Supervisors, upholding these plant number and parcel size rules and creating several new restrictions on the size and location of grows.
Environmentalists are particularly enthusiastic about the planning commissioners' recommendation to exclude the county's 714,000-plus acres of rangelands from new cannabis cultivation, as well as an Oak Woodlands Protection Ordinance and a future Grading Ordinance (both to be adopted by 2020). The draft Oak Woodlands Protection Ordinance requires that not a single oak tree be cut down for new cannabis cultivation. McCowen supports these proposals, though the other supervisors' positions are currently unknown.
“Part of my bottom-line in our new ordinance is that I want to protect areas like Adanac Ranch that haven't already been taken over by cannabis cultivation,” McCowen says. “My goal is to bring existing cultivators into a regulated framework before we start carving up the rest of the county.”
The Ukiah-based supervisor takes issue with the argument that county authorities lacked the manpower to deal with the Adanac violations. “It's disappointing that it took over two months for the county to make a decision on Chris Brennan's complaint,” he says. “It's not difficult to review the criteria for what is a legal parcel, what is proof of prior cultivation, what are the AP numbers of the Adanac Ranch, and what are the AP numbers of the applications.”
Johnson says that he opted to seek a legal opinion from County Counsel Kathryn Elliott to determine whether Bewley was actually violating the rules. He says he also met with Bewley and Bewley's business associates to hear their side of the story before taking action. During the meeting, he says, Bewley brought up an interesting point about one of the Urgency Ordinance's findings. According to Johnson, Finding “O” leaves the “multiple grows on multiple parcels” issues open to interpretation.
It states: “With the elimination of the exemption from the 25 plant per parcel limit, the County also revised the definition of legal parcel from defining an unlimited number of contiguous parcels under common ownership or control as one parcel eligible for a single exemption, to defining any portion of a parcel with a separate Assessor’s Parcel number as a parcel, resulting in an individual owner of multiple contiguous parcels being able to cultivate 25 marijuana plants times the number of Assessor’s Parcel numbers, instead of being limited to no more than 99 plants with an exemption.”
Ultimately, Johnson says, County Counsel Elliott determined that Bewley's multiple grow sites did, in fact, violate the Urgency Ordinance. By that point, however, the cultivation season was over; Bewley's associates presumably had already harvested all the plants.
In an interview, Elliott echoed Johnson's point about the lack of clear language in the Urgency Ordinance. “For the people enforcing these things, the language is not always easy to understand,” she says.
Chris Brennan has positive things to say about Elliott, whom he describes as “very helpful.” She convened a meeting with him and Undersheriff Johnson on October 5th, he says, in which Brennan and Elliott provided Google Earth maps of Bewley's property. Elliott confirmed several details of the meeting, and she says she arranged it so that “Randy Johnson could hear Chris Brennan's concerns.”
But Brennan, like McCowen, questions why it took Elliott until after the cultivation season to determine that Bewley's cannabis grows violated the Urgency Ordinance, even though the complaints about them started pouring in in July. He especially wonders why Johnson, in particular, waited to act on his complaint. “I keep asking these people, 'Why did Johnson take so long? Why did he protect the Adanac?'” he says. “It's pretty sad when a citizen makes a complaint about something as important as this and gets stone-cold silence from the official responsible.”
In December, Brennan obtained copies of the five permit applications that Bewley and associates filed with the Sherriff's Office. Oddly, he notes, some of the paperwork is dated in September, even though the application deadline for the cultivation permits was in June. He also notes that some of the names on the applications were amended in some of these post-deadline filings.
The businesses listed on the applications include medical cannabis businesses in Napa and Marin counties.
Elliott declined to provide the AVA a copy of the official legal opinion concerning the Adanac Ranch grows. She also declined to answer several questions about the contents of the opinion, citing her obligation to protect confidential information. “We have to be very cautious because we are legal advisers,” she says. “We're behind the scenes; we're not out in front.”
I asked Johnson whether Bewley would be allowed to continue cultivating in the same areas next year, provided that the county adopts rules identical to those in the Urgency Ordinance. “If everything stayed the way it is now, No,” he says. “Say this program they're in now went forward. No, they would not be able to grow in the same locations based on the parcel issue.”
Johnson also took issue with Brennan's personal style of raising complaints, questioned why he singled out Adanac Ranch for criticism, and acknowledged that violations of the Urgency Ordinance were not limited to Adanac. “Chris Brennan deals with stuff a little bit abrasively. He was focused on the Adanac Ranch. But there were people in other places who had the same issues as the people at Adanac Ranch had.” He also claimed that Brennan has “an ax to grind” with marijuana cultivation.
But Brennan says his main concern, in addition to protecting wildlife, is the integrity of the county's cannabis ordinance. His concerns are similar to those expressed by McCowen. “I know people who went through the process of getting a permit to grow 99 plants who are good people,” Brennan says. “They jumped through all the hoops. They paid the money. They hired the consultants, did the studies. They did all this, but then Stuart Bewley and his people get to do whatever they want?”