Cannabis cultivation could expand in San Francisco North Bay — but not everywhere
Facing the question of whether cannabis cultivation rules should be expanded, reduced or left alone, counties and farm bureaus in the North Bay are all over the map.
Marin County, the birthplace of medicinal use marijuana in the state, plans to continue banning cultivation in its unincorporated boundaries, though continuing to allow retail delivery.
On the other end of the North Bay, Napa’s supervisors have gone back on considering allowing cultivation, while nearby Sonoma County is exploring a dramatic push to allow for more commercial growing.
After hosting a series of town halls, the county has proposed an ordinance to expand the amount of cannabis grown on a parcel to up to 10% in certain zones. Growth has been held to one acre up to this point.
The proposal was expected to head to the county’s planning commission March 18.
If the commission approves it, the process is expected to take a while. It involves a lengthy set of guidelines and a change in the General Plan — the local government’s blueprint for land use.
“We heard feedback and concern from neighborhood groups about the potential of expanded cultivation and its impact on rural neighborhood,” county Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith told the Business Journal on March 15. His department would oversee the cannabis operations. “Sonoma County (officials are) hearing two passionate sides of the issue. There’s a lot of long-held opposition on cannabis in general.”
Neighborhood groups are joining the Sonoma County Farm Bureau in raising sometimes opposing objections. The ag trade group takes issue with how bureaucratic the requirements are.
First, the Farm Bureau disapproves of the number of restrictions and guidelines, including “the county’s recommendation to recognize cannabis as an agriculture crop.” The group contends the federal government doesn’t do so, addressing the matter in a detailed letter to the county Planning Commission’s Permit Sonoma division.
Secondly, the Farm Bureau wants to allow property owners to combine parcels and get approval to grow on a large piece of land, rather than by 10% on each parcel. Currently, cannabis is only allowed on 10-acre plots.
Even with the cannabis issue, the farming and ranching advocacy group also continues to push its core organization values, suggesting the county toss out its lengthy list of requirements that a cultivator would need to meet in order to get a permit. Some of these guidelines deemed bureaucratic range from whether the land has cultural resources on it to the slope of the property.
“The regulation is onerous and will delay and possibly prevent cannabis cultivation,” the letter reads. Further, “no other agriculture crop is required to do” a survey of the land.
If passed by the supervisors at a later date, the rules would apply to the rural part of the county. Cannabis operations within city limits are handled by those local jurisdictions.
How we got here
Sonoma’s local government was an early adopter of cannabis, permitting medical cannabis dispensaries in 2007. Proposition 215 granted that use across the state in 1997, a few decades before voters gave the green light to adult recreational use.
In 2016, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors directed staff to bring forward a comprehensive cannabis ordinance, a proposal that resulted in an estimated 750 people attending town hall meetings in all districts and more than 1,100 people responding to a survey. Its findings showed many citizens supporting legalized commercial medical cannabis but expressed concerns about crime and other nuisances.
The county adopted a land use ordinance covering cannabis cultivation in December 2019. Last May, the agricultural commissioner’s office began drafting an update that would reflect an expansion of commercial cultivation in designated zones.
Agriculture is king in the Wine Country
Whether or not Napa County labels cannabis as an agricultural product in the land of world-renowned Cabernet Sauvignon, it would still need to satisfy the region’s thirst for grapes that make premium wine.
Planning Director David Morrison said the issue is “limited land,” and the county should not write rules allowing parcels to be taken away from wine production.
“Our agricultural land has to be protected. You can grow cannabis in other places,” Morrison said, pointing out the quality and care that go into grapes grown in the Valley don’t just happen anywhere.
“The majority of the board of supervisors is not interested in exploring (other occupiers),” he said.
This point of view is commended by the Napa County Farm Bureau, which vehemently opposes cannabis commercial cultivation in the region.