Humboldt, land of 15,000 grows

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Humboldt County’s new commercial marijuana ordinance estimates that there are up to 15,000 grow operations here and environmental review can only be done for the minority that come into the regulatory system.

At its November 16 meeting, the county’s Planning Commission held its first hearing on the draft ordinance and its EIR. As noted during a staff presentation, many comments on the EIR focused on the prevalence of unpermitted marijuana grows.

The county is processing 2,300 permit applications filed under the deadline of the existing commercial production ordinance, which is being updated. About 90 permits have been approved so far.

There’s plenty of concern about the much larger number of growers operating outside of the permitting system. Some will enter it when the new ordinance is approved and the county accepts more permit applications.

Saying that “an overarching theme” of the comments on the EIR is a concern about lack of environmental review of the county’s unpermitted cultivators, Commissioner Brian Mitchell asked for clarification on “when will all those get reviewed, if not now.”

Patrick Angell, the EIR’s project manager, said the review only evaluates the conditions that will change when the county launches its new phase of regulation.

The county’s 2,300 permit applications and unpermitted activity both represent the “baseline” or existing condition, Angell continued.

More applications will be submitted under the new ordinance and the EIR evaluates the impacts associated with that.

“The EIR estimates that there are up to 15,000 cultivation operations right now and you have 2,300 that have come in for permits, so that seems to suggest you have a rather substantial number out there who would be determined to be unpermitted and potentially illegal,” said Angell.

Planning Director John Ford said an overall effort to do more code enforcement includes marijuana-related enforcement, and  a “strong response” has been gained to the county’s issuance of 71 notices of violation.

During a public comment session, Nate Madsen of Honeydew said his neighbors have told him they’ve dealt with violation notices and have found the county to be “very reasonable” about resolving issues.

But he added that the county needs to re-evaluate its approach.

“You guys came out in the first place and said, ‘Hey, here’s our program, come join – and if you don’t we’re going to beat you over the head,’” Madsen said. “I don’t respond well to threats and I don’t think a lot of people do, and I think people felt threatened by this program and that’s why they’re not participating.”

Also during public comment, Scott Bauer of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Watershed Enforcement Team said that “one of the biggest issues we don’t see addressed” is that the new ordinance lacks a cap on the total number of cultivation sites.

Growers and their advocates had concerns about some of the regulatory proposals, such as 1,000-foot setbacks from residences and 600-foot setbacks from school bus stops.

Commissioners began reviewing the EIR’s regulatory alternatives, directing staff to rework and bring them back in several cases.

But most commissioners supported applying the provisions of the new ordinance only to those who submit new permit applications, not those whose applications are already in  the system.

Commissioners also considered an EIR alternative that would eliminate a provision limiting the maximum amount of cultivation area permitted to one individual to four acres.

Commission Chair Bob Morris argued against eliminating the limit, saying not having it will offset the goal of “not letting these mega-grows get out of control.”

Recalling the county’s timber industry history, Morris added, “When you get big industries here, that’s outside investment money .. and when they make a profit, the odds are, that profit goes outside of Humboldt County.”

Most commissioners agreed that the four acres per applicant cap should be maintained.

One of the main issues related to the EIR is establishing odor setbacks and setbacks from community plan areas. Staff was directed to do further work on them.

The hearing was continued to the commission’s Nov. 30 meeting.







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