Sonoma County moves to close large pot operation near Cloverdale
Sonoma County officials are moving to shut down a large marijuana operation in the hills west of Cloverdale by arguing in court the operators are in violation of zoning codes and have created a public nuisance.
The property has two large greenhouses for nonpermissible cannabis cultivation, according to the county, along with extensive grading and two barns and a cabin without the required permits.
Property records show the 83-acre property off Cherry Creek Road was bought for $1.8 million last year by Valley of the Mountains, an East Bay limited liability corporation. One of the purchasers was Joe Quinn Bretz, an Internet and technology entrepreneur turned film, television and music producer.
The fact that the marijuana operation and purchase of the property on Cherry Creek Road was done through a series of interconnected, out-of-county corporations, is seen as an example of the big money, opaque operators that some fear will be part of the new “green rush” to cash in on medical marijuana and ultimately legalization.
Work on the property and affiliated construction traffic on the narrow, dead-end country road drew complaints this spring from neighbors, along with scrutiny from county officials who said they found about 1,000 pounds of drying cannabis there during a site inspection in May.
On Oct. 5, Sonoma County Judge Rene Chouteau issued a temporary restraining order for the property owners to stop cannabis cultivation and use of all electrical generators and structures, which are in violation of county building, grading, sewage and drainage codes.
The judge allowed the existing marijuana plants in the greenhouse and outdoors to remain and be watered, but not trimmed or harvested, pending a court hearing Dec. 7.
John Lytle, the Sonoma attorney representing Valley of the Mountains, declined comment Oct. 6, saying “this is just the beginning of the litigation.”
County officials said there was nothing to indicate the cannabis was being grown for medical marijuana patients, but even if it were, the current zoning code does not allow pot cultivation anywhere in unincorporated parts of Sonoma County.
The county is conducting a public review of a proposed ordinance that would allow cultivation and other cannabis-related activity in some areas.
It’s in response to new state laws aimed at regulating and implementing a comprehensive system governing the medical marijuana business, but also giving cities and counties authority on where and when they can be located, licensed and taxed. The process has some urgency because of polls showing the likelihood that California voters will approve Proposition 64 next month legalizing adult use of marijuana.
The county’s proposed rules aim to steer large cannabis grows into agricultural or industrial zones, not residential areas.
North County Supervisor James Gore said the large pot operation west of Cloverdale is emblematic of the problems that can arise with cultivation in rural residential areas, however remote.
“The reality is they are operating up on a mountain in a way that is degrading the environment and causing concern in this community,” Gore said.
“This is the reason we need to use an ordinance to steer the industry to appropriate areas and create a stronger hammer to make sure they’re not in inappropriate areas.”
The county currently does not criminally prosecute medical marijuana patients with up to 100 square feet of plants, nor some larger-scale operations that are part of a cooperative for numerous patients, according to Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum. He said large grows are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Asked about the Cherry Creek property, he said “as a general practice, we don’t discuss a particular marijuana garden before we do anything with it.”
The proposed county ordinance includes requirements for business operators to have been a resident of Sonoma County for at least the last two years and own more than half the business.
“We’re trying to write an ordinance to bring this industry into compliance, especially for smaller grows and people acting responsibly,” Gore said.
But in court documents filed as part of the temporary restraining order, the county says the operators of the Cherry Creek property never indicated the greenhouses were for cannabis and also erected two barns and a cabin with hazardous electrical wiring and plumbing.
County inspectors found numerous problems at the site: the buildings have inadequate foundations, the unpermitted septic systems may contaminate groundwater and nearby streams, and the undersized electric systems create an imminent fire hazard.
Bretz, the entrepreneur and music and film producer linked to the property, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
But neighbors on Cherry Creek Road said he met with them several months ago in response to their concerns about the marijuana growing at the property and the security guards posted at its entrance. According to his résume, Bretz had a private investment fund that incubated numerous successful internet and media-related startups and oversaw a series of real estate and nightclub holdings. He also is credited with producing a music video of the multiplatinum band Smash Mouth, an HBO rock concert series and the Rob Schneider feature film “The Chosen One.”
Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org