There is light at the end of the tunnel.
As the days get shorter and the dark grows longer, the harvest is nearly in the barn and there is a ray of hope filtering through.
The other night there was a public meeting in Willits of the Ad Hoc Cannabis Committee of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. Word was out in the Mendo cannabis activist community that this would be an important meeting, specifically about cultivation issues.
Right at the start, the committee blew our collective minds with their new proposals. In stunned silence we sat and listened to Supervisor John McCowen, in the absence of co-committee member Supervisor Dan Hamburg, read off the proposed changes to the county ordinance. Just prior to the meeting the indefatigable Hannah Nelson, Attorney at Law, had reposted the long list of requested additions, modifications and deletions that she and Casey O’Neill had previously submitted to the Board. Now to our surprise, many of these important changes were being put forward. At first hearing it seemed like we are getting many of the things we had been asking for since Spring of 2014.
One of the most important changes concerned allowing the new owner of a parcel with a previously legally permitted cannabis cultivation site or nursery, to apply for the agricultural permit to grow on that land in the future; the so called transferability of the agricultural permit. The logical outcome of a non-transfer policy was that after 10 to 20 years nearly every cannabis permitted parcel on Rangeland (where a majority of cultivation sites are located) would have been sold and the transfer of the cultivation permit denied. Thus, land used for decades by the original heritage growers would be removed from production. The prime cannabis cultivation land in the world would have few if any legal heritage growers still operating. This restriction clearly applies to us on our ranch.
In a strict business sense, without transferability there is no incentive to make improvements on the property. There would be no reason to spend the tens of thousands of dollars to come into compliance with the innumerable rules and upgrades required by county and state, if you cannot recover the cost of meeting the legal requirements when you sell the property. No other type of business endeavor is subject to these restrictions. Their removal could well be a major factor in saving the cannabis industry in Mendocino County and might even encourage more old growers to apply for cultivation permits.
Far and away the most surprising proposals, presented in the form of questions, concerned Phase 3 permits, set to begin in 2020, for new, non-heritage cultivators. Will all new cultivation sites need a Use permit, which involves a site specific environmental review? Should Rangeland be opened up for new cultivation sites with a Use Permit? Should Range Land, Agriculture Land and Upland Residential be allowed to increase to one acre cultivation sites, with a Use Permit? And most amazing: Should there be allowance, with a Major Use Permit, for up to four individual one acre cultivation sites together on the same property, by four different entities?
To put this in context, up until 2016, Mendocino County more or less allowed anyone to grow 25 plants without any permit on parcels larger than five acres. Further, there was a kind of gentleman’s agreement that as long as you had fewer than 99 plants and no neighbor complained you would probably get away with it. For years Supervisor McCowen supported the 25 plant limit and we eventually pushed him to sanction 99 plants. But he was always adamant about “no transfer of permitted land use” and the prohibition of new cultivation sites on Rangeland.
All of a sudden they were proposing opening up Rangeland to new grows after 2020, a major expansion of allowable new cultivation sites. By the addition of Rangeland the allowable zoning area for new sites would be expanded from 5% of the available land in the county to nearly 40%. Simultaneously, they were considering enlarging the size of those permitted sites from 10,000 sq. ft. (less than ¼ of an acre) to as much as four acres — sixteen times as much. That’s huge!
This wouldn’t be so bad if the new grows were restricted to 10,000 sq. ft. of canopy. But after thinking about it for awhile, do we really want to open up the County to new four acre grows in any Zone, even with a Major Use Permit? Mendocino is known for its heritage of small craft artisanal cannabis farmers. Mendonesians are pioneers in advanced regenerative growing methodologies, they are innovative breeders developing new locally adapted genetics, as well as traditional and experimental makers of innumerable manufactured products, but the small family farm and small batch production is what makes us unique.
Upon reflection, it seems clear that a four acre site allowance is designed to let in major agricultural investment. Or perhaps its intent is to allow co-ops to consolidate land use. This would be especially attractive in Ag Land Zone, which is now mostly vineyards with previously allocated water supplies. Additionally, there are many vineyards in Rangeland, also with water rights. In both cases, however, since vintners are not allowed to cultivate both grapes and cannabis on their land, they would have to rip up all their vines on their whole parcel and only plant a maximum of 4 acres in cannabis (with four one acre permits owned by four different entities). At current cannabis vs. wine prices, they would make ten times as much profit and use one third the water in the process.
It would seem then that the big boys moved in and took the local “powers that be” to task for failing to take advantage of Mendocino’s reputation for the growing the finest cannabis in the world. They must have read that Riverside County is authorizing 3 acre indoor and greenhouse grows and Santa Barbara County has the majority of the cultivation permits from the State (over 700). Humboldt County has the second most and they all allow one acre grows.
When only 240 cultivators out of the mythical 10,000 growers in the County have actually received even temporary permits, there must have been a panic in the local government. The program couldn’t even pay for itself. The turmoil and turnover has been been noteworthy. The current Agriculture Commissioner, Harinder Grehwal, is the fifth to hold that title since 2014, and every time I go to the Ag Commission’s office I see bright new young people at the desks.
In the planning and building department likewise there has been great turnover with retirements and new hires. The old guard is changing. New people, sympathetic to cannabis as a legitimate industry, are coming to work with us at a very challenging time. The new Ag Commissioner and the new Planning Commissioner repeatedly declared that were there to help us, that they are public servants and they want to assist us to stay in business.
Maybe they finally realized that instead of prohibiting and arresting us they need to nurture and protect us, because we really have been the economic backbone of NorCal for decades. They have made it so difficult, complicated and expensive to meet all the requirements the State and County decreed, that people are giving up and moving away. Some of the best growers are relocating to friendlier counties and states.
It is just possible that by immediately making these proposed changes to the County Ordinance, the Mendocino cannabis industry may yet recover. Instead of the current Board of Supervisors and County Staff being remembered as the ones who destroyed the cannabis industry, they will be celebrated as the ones with the foresight to proudly promote the pioneer cannabis growers and makers who are the heart and soul of this County.