More than 200 people packed the Mateel Community Center in Redway Thursday evening for “Community in Crisis,” a town hall to address the “drastic and immediate economic decline" of Humboldt from cannabis “fees and fines” that are putting many small cannabis farmers out of business.
Emotions ran high at the meeting, as residents begged a panel of state and county officials for help. Their issues included:
- The falling price of cannabis and rising costs of cultivation permits;
- The loss of their livelihood and lifestyle;
- High fines related to Humboldt County’s code enforcement abatement program;
- The complexities of permit applications (“The homework from hell,” as one speaker put it);
- Fear that cannabis code enforcers will red tag their homes; (“They’re going to get every nickel they think we owe,” said one man.)
- Falling property values and failing businesses;
- Big cannabis businesses getting permits while small ones fail.
The Mateel Community Center and the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project hosted the town hall.
Moderator Bonnie Blackberry said many Southern Humboldt residents are concerned about their community’s future.
“A lot of businesses in town are closing,” Blackberry said. “Many others are questioning if they’re able to survive. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will be left when the dust settles.
“What businesses and services will be here? In the past communities asked and supported enforcement of egregious grows damaging our environment. Unfortunately, little was done, and there came the Green Rush where the situation grew to a point where things were totally out of control, and now we have legalization which has brought an avalanche of regulations, permits, fees from multiple agencies and local government.
“Small grows are being replaced with large industrial-type grows with the vast overproduction and the current price collapse, which is having a huge impact on our local economy. And community code enforcement has progressed from complaint driven to focus on egregious grows to targeting non-egregious grows. Many are wondering what’s next.”
Panelist Estelle Fennell, Southern Humboldt’s 2nd District Supervisor, told the audience she understands how grave the crisis is. “I have worked with so many people to try to help them through the process,” Fennell said.
Humboldt County’s Planning and Building Department Director John Ford, head of Code Enforcement, offered statistics about the enforcement program:
- Since August of 2017, Code Enforcement has sent out 250 Notices to Abate a Nuisance (NTA) to cannabis farmers.
- Unpermitted cultivation carries a minimum penalty of $10,000 a day after 10 days. If landowners enter into a compliance agreement with the county, the fees are capped at one day per violation. The county’s hope is that the fines and penalties will drive unpermitted growers out of the county.
- Eighty-four applicants are in compliance.
- The county has collected $1.3 million in fines and is owed another $2.5 million.
- Most of the permits and fees are coming from Southern Humboldt although the northern part of the county is much larger geographically.
Ford insisted that his department is not targeting housing code violations but is focusing exclusively on illegal cannabis sites.
He said the two biggest problems that slow down county permits at his end are applicants who change their project descriptions after they’ve submitted their application; and applicants who are hard to get hold of and do not return calls when the county needs more information.
“We know how hard this is,” Ford says. “It’s working against you, and it’s working against us. We tend to come from different worlds and speak different languages sometimes.”
One local resident expressed frustration that to get her one source of water approved she must submit applications to five different agencies.
Adona White, a water quality engineer with the California Water Quality Control Board, said her agency is creating a way for farmers to opt out of the water board program if they no longer wish to grow or cannot afford the costs. The first step, she said, is to contact the water board and request “termination of coverage.”
Audience member John Haschak, a candidate for Mendocino County’s 3rd District Supervisor’s seat, told the group that Willits is also a community “in crisis.”
“I just have three comments about the direction of cannabis, and one is the direct sales bill that just failed in Sacramento,” Haschak said. “I applaud the Humboldt County supervisors for supporting that bill because without direct sales it seems like the small farmer is hopeless without that.
“The other one is co-ops. I totally agree that the co-op idea for business is necessary, and we need to be promoting that whenever we can.
“And the third one is a regional bank for the North Coast. Without public banking we have so many financial hurdles that are hampering the business opportunities for small farmers and creating a lack of safety because of the amount of cash going through the communities. We need to get that public banking throughout Humboldt, Mendocino, Del Norte counties.”
Beth Allen, owner of Amillia’s restaurant in Garberville, gave one of the most emotional speeches of the evening.
“I cannot afford to grow anymore,” Allen said. “What we grew went to the community. It meant school clothes, new shoes for the kids, a case of toilet paper, a case of toothpaste and maybe our taxes paid and our mortgage that we could pay once a year and that you could maybe not have plastic windows this winter.
“My business is failing. I offer a service to my community of good healthy food seven days a week. I am tired, and I’m tired of the disrespect and the struggle. At the last major meeting that we had in Garberville I asked Jared Hoffman ‘What are you going to do for us?’ And I was not answered, and I have yet to be answered.
“And I have to tell you, we are not putting in the application again. One point I want to make is that usually there are 60 parcels and homes on average for sale in Humboldt County every year. There are over 900 right now. It’s so important that you understand that you are shooting yourselves in both feet.”
Although the town hall settled nothing, participants seemed grateful for the chance to express their fears and frustrations with one other and with public officials who appeared to be listening.
(Jane Futcher hosts the Cannabis Hour every other Thursday on KZYX.)