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No Hurry On New Pot Rules

I’ve said this before but it needs to be said again, it’s never a good idea for elected officials to pick a fight with folks they shouldn’t really be picking fights with.

But that’s exactly what happened this week at a public meeting held in Willits by the Board of Supervisors’ Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee. Two supervisors serve on the committee, Dan Hamburg and John McCowen. Hamburg was absent, so McCowen took public comment Monday, Nov. 29, on 23 proposed changes to the county’s Cannabis Ordinance. (Be sure and read Jane Futcher’s excellent report on that meeting in this week’s paper.)

A pair of proposed ordinance revisions immediately grabbed my attention.

The Ad Hoc Committee is recommending that the current prohibition on issuing new rangeland cultivation permits after 2020 be lifted.

Secondly, the committee is proposing to raise the cap on grow sites from 10,000 square feet to a whopping four acres.

These are both very bad ideas.

The rangeland proposal, if adopted by the full Board of Supervisors, will almost certainly trigger litigation by environmental and wildlife organizations that two years ago reached a compromise settlement with the county over a lawsuit alleging insufficient environmental review relative to its initial proposed cannabis ordinance. Supposedly, the compromise included the ordinance provision prohibiting any rangeland cultivation expansion after 2020.

The Black Tail Deer Association filed the original CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuit, and their efforts were supported by such organizations as the Willits Environmental Center, the Mendocino Wildlife Association, the Audibon Society, and others. These groups all consider rangeland to be critical habitat for wildlife and fragile lands that require protection from harmful cultivation practices.

Tracing the history of the county’s cannabis ordinance and their involvement with it, the Willits Environmental Center’s website states, “Our efforts were well rewarded. For example, the Ordinance, approved by the Board of Supervisors in the Spring of 2017, protects the County’s remote, drier, less stable rangeland watersheds from widespread expansion of commercial cannabis cultivation … and no mature forest trees, including oak trees, can be cleared for cannabis cultivation.”

According to Jane Futcher’s report on the Ad Hoc Committee meeting, David and Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center expressed outrage at the cannabis committee’s recommendation to allow four-acre grows and to give new permits on rangeland. Rangeland is currently off limits to new permits after 2020, due in part to the Drells’ lobbying efforts and those of the Black Tail Deer Association and the Mendocino Wildlife Association.

“I am stunned and shocked and discouraged that you would open up to new permits in 2020,” David Drell said. “You’re going into new bigger grows.” He implored the county cancel Phase Three and “figure out who’s growing or who’s growing illegally first.”

Ellen Drell told the committee it was “irresponsible” to allow expansion of cannabis cultivation with the current regulation program in “such chaos.”

Expanding grow sites to four acres will open the floodgates to large-scale, corporate cultivation, thus further decimating the ranks of the small pot farmer. It flies in the face of the county’s alleged support of the mom-and-pop growers who historically have been the backbone of marijuana farming in this county.

At the committee meeting, Futcher reported that “cultivator Nikki Lastreto, co-founder of Swami Select in Laytonville … said the committee’s proposal to allow four-acre grows worried her because the change could allow ‘really big corporations to come in to ag land and do really giant grows.’ That, she said, could be a problem for the county’s many small craft farmers.”

The Board of Supervisors and their staff have no clue at this time how many growers and cultivation sites there are in this county.

They don’t know what the impacts of marijuana cultivation are on our watersheds.

They don’t know how many grow sites and/or plants are sustainable in each watershed.

So how in the world can they make an informed decision to expand cultivation in rangelands or bump up grow sites to four acres?

Both recommendations, most likely, call for re-opening the environmental review process if they are to be approved as amendments to the existing cannabis ordinance. You can bet a lawsuit will be filed if that doesn’t occur.

You really have to wonder what thought process produced these two proposals. And that gets me to my main point.

The full Board of Supervisors is scheduled to take possible action on the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendations on Friday, Nov. 16. That meeting should be postponed and continued to another date.

This Tuesday, Nov. 6, is Election Day. Once the votes are counted, two new supervisors — one from the 3rd District, the other from the 5th — will be elected to the BOS and they will be seated in December, just a few weeks from now. These are new proposals, they should be decided by the new Board.

I can’t think of any compelling reasons for the old Board with two lame ducks to rush the decision-making on these proposed revisions, can you?

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live:

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