Sonoma County to take up pivotal decision over medical marijuana regulation
Sonoma County’s move to recognize and regulate thousands of marijuana growers has triggered a high-stakes battle between pot producers intent on protecting their livelihood and rural residents who want cannabis cultivation pushed as far as possible from their homes.
It’s a land-use conflict that may have no satisfactory solution for either the estimated 3,000 marijuana growers or the 81,000 people living on land designated for residential use in the unincorporated area outside the county’s nine cities.
And it’s a culture clash between cannabis entrepreneurs who for decades have raised, in the legal shadows, an intoxicating crop that could rival the wine grape industry in value versus residents who say the proliferation of pot gardens is destroying their quality-of-life and diminishing property values in their rural neighborhoods.
From Cloverdale to the Willowside area west of Santa Rosa, from Bennett Valley on the city’s east flank and even in the upscale Montecito Heights area, residents tell of unfriendly strangers putting up tall fences, blacking out windows and converting nearby homes to marijuana operations of uncertain legality.
Pot producers, meanwhile, are concerned that 70 percent of the 31,383 properties on rural residential land are too small to meet the county’s proposed 2-acre minimum lot size for small grows.
Kathleen Whitener, who’s lived on a Willowside area cul de sac for 31 years, said she no longer enjoys gardening in her back yard, with a feeder that attracts green hummingbirds and an ash tree for shade.
“Now I just feel creepy out there,” she said.
Video cameras mounted on the house next door have invaded her sense of privacy, prompting Whitener to keep blinds drawn on the windows facing that way.
Mike Whitener, Kathleen’s husband, is no longer making improvements to the home he has lovingly restored, pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the 1,800-square-foot stucco home and building equity for the couple’s retirement.
The Whiteners said they have watched in horror as the house next door, once owned by a gentleman who raised giant pumpkins, has been transformed since it changed hands 15 months ago. A 1,000-square-foot outbuilding, barely visible behind new solid wood fences, has been converted to an apparent marijuana garden.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Kathleen Whitener said. “We’re not going to be able to sell our house.”
Mike Whitener imagined a worse scenario: a “domino effect” that would transform homes, one by one down the street, into grow sites.
After a series of clashes in public hearings at the county’s Planning Commission, rural residents and marijuana growers are gearing up for the Board of Supervisors’ first hearing Tuesday on a proposed zoning ordinance that will determine where medical cannabis can be grown for profit. The move is also intended to lay the groundwork for the county’s regulatory approach to marijuana cultivation under Proposition 64, which legalized adult recreational cannabis use.
The flashpoint lies in the county staff recommendation to allow so-called “cottage” cultivation - 25 plants outdoors, 500 square feet indoors or 2,500 square feet in greenhouses - on rural residential lots of at least two acres, a standard only 30 percent of properties meet.
Commercial cultivation of up to an acre of marijuana outdoors and up to 22,000 square feet indoors would be permitted in agricultural, industrial and rural resources zones.
The proposed land-use measure also allows residents to grow six plants or up to 100 square feet per residence for personal consumption, essentially matching the provisions of Proposition 64.
The Whiteners are part of a residents’ group that has mounted a petition urging the supervisors to prohibit all commercial pot cultivation in the county’s rural residential zones. It had 365 signatures Saturday and strong support from one board member.
Supervisor James Gore, who represents the north county, including the Willowside area, said he supports medical marijuana but is flatly opposed to commercial cultivation in rural residential areas.
“This about neighborhoods. This is about community,” he said. At one meeting with residents disturbed by pot grows, Gore said he “met 10 families who are screaming for help.”
About 80 percent of Sonoma County’s marijuana cultivation is in the rural residential and rural resource development zones for a reason, he said. “It’s been illegal. That’s the best place to hide it.”
Now it should be located in agricultural, industrial or commercial zones, Gore said.
Supervisor David Rabbitt said he questions how cottage grows would benefit the rural neighborhoods of his south county district. “I need to be convinced that it’s something we should do,” he said, citing the problems with odor and public safety related to marijuana cultivation.