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Committee refines cannabis recommendations

A crowd of people wearing yellow T-shirts and holding signs in a county administrative building.
Growers at an October 4 Board of Supervisors meeting (not the October 17 General Government meeting), urging the Board to accept the cannabis ad hoc committee's recommendations. Several of those were passed to the General Government meeting.

The Board of Supervisors General Government standing committee heard hours of comment from growers about recommendations from the cannabis ad hoc committee in a more expansive and casual setting than is typical for full Board meetings.

October 18, 2022 — With harvest season underway, cannabis is in the spotlight at the Board of Supervisors chambers.

Earlier this month, at a meeting that dragged on until after 7:00 pm, the Board discussed a dozen recommendations by the cannabis ad hoc committee, consisting of Supervisors John Haschak and Glenn McGourty. Several of the recommendations were passed to the General Government standing committee, which is made up of Supervisors Maureen Mulheren and Dan Gjerde. The composition could change next year, with the rotation of positions on the board.

The question of vegetation modification, referred to politely as veg mod purgatory, is still hanging in the air, as an outside legal firm ponders the details. Growers have worried that their permits could be revoked or denied if they remove trees and vegetation from around their grow sites, even if it was for fire safety or because the vegetation was diseased.

At Monday’s General Government standing committee meeting, County Counsel Christian Curtis asked for more time to prepare an affidavit for growers to present as evidence that they have removed a tree for legitimate purposes.

“The primary issue here is not so much the issue of whether or not trees can be removed,” he said. “I think that’s pretty clear from the ordinance that they can, unless it’s a commercial species, with certain provisos…I see from the recommendation put forward from the ad hoc, there are some features there that model what we’ve been working on…we’re working with the department on a potential affidavit process to essentially establish as a starting point where people are, establish compliance with the ordinance with respect to the tree removal…a big part of the issue is, when you have the affidavit, what are the appropriate standards for the departments to apply when they think there may be something false in the affidavit, what may be the appropriate standard, both to investigate, and once having investigated, what would be an appropriate standard to apply, based on what they have.”

Attorney Hannah Nelson, who outlined the idea about the affidavit in a memo to the Board, summarized the historical context of policies that haven’t always arrived at a tidy conclusion.

“This is after five and a half years, the sixth department head slash manager in the third department, and processes have changed, and so I think that it’s important to note that it’s not just about the evidentiary standards, but also inclusion of standards such as, can dead trees be removed or not,” she opined.

Michael Katz, Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, urged the committee to avail itself of Nelson’s legal memos. Last month, she submitted several pages on tree removal, with details about the affidavit and a critique of the current vegetation modification notice process.

“Hannah is a thirty-year expert attorney who successfully litigated the first case for the federal government to have to return medical cannabis to a patient,” he said. “So she really knows what she’s talking about. And for her to provide dozens and dozens of pages of specific language recommendations that are then be either ignored or unseen or asked for repeatedly, and not actually absorbed and integrated, the county is losing money by not utilizing this free resource and instead hiring outside counsels to come up with things that are already established law.”

The issue will come back before the committee next month.

Another item that came before the committee was a suggestion from the ad hoc to create a process to resolve disputes over permits without denying them. The intent is to keep the current applicants on track to getting their state licenses by next summer. Cannabis Department Director Kristin Nevedal said she could craft such a policy, but that it might include a fee.

During public comment, Susan Tibben referred to the next big grant that will soon be available to growers. Nevedal succeeded in securing an $18 million local jurisdiction assistance grant program from the state, specifically to help growers comply with environmental requirements for their state licensure. Ten million dollars of the grant will be available to applicants, in awards up to $100,000. The first application window will open in mid-January, and be open for four weeks. After six to eight weeks to process the applications, the window will open again. Tibben thought there would be enough money in the department that applicants disputing an issue in their permits should be able talk with a planner at no extra cost.

“The idea of staff hour fees tied in any way to a fee for the permittee is just absolutely unacceptable,” she opined. “You know, earlier today, $18 million was referenced with regard to the LJAGP (local jurisdiction assistance grant program), with $10 million earmarked for grantees, so that would leave $8 million, and also our tax dollars…so please do not even consider a hierarchy of department assistance tied to additional fees.”

On the next day’s Board of Supervisors agenda was a recommendation to amend the county cultivation ordinance to establish an appeals process for permit applications that do get denied, with a fee to be established by the Board. One of the consent calendar items is a retroactive agreement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for $231,654 for sensitive species habitat reviews that agency started conducting in February of last year. An item without materials attached is a recommendation to clarify that removing dead and hazardous vegetation is not development, and to direct Planning and Building Services to deprioritize all related code enforcement.

Tibben’s partner Paul Hansbury used part of his allotted three minutes of public comment to reflect on the incremental, long-term nature of crafting cannabis policy.

“My partner Susan and I have been advocates for a very long time,” he said. “We’ve traveled on a state level to all the cannabis advisory meetings. And at one point, we made up little stickers for everybody in the audience, saying, ‘trying to make a difference, three minutes at a time.’”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.