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Supervisors to curtail signature-gathering for cannabis prohibition zones

Chartreuse-leaved grapevines against a background of mountains shrouded in fog and a rainbow low to the ground.
Applicant exhibit from the Board of Supervisors packet for the hearing about the proposed cannabis prohibition zone in Redwood Valley.
A view of Redwood Valley.

The Board of Supervisors discussed process, discrimination, and the role of the public in determining public policy last week, when they took on the question of cannabis overlay zones.

The Board directed County Counsel to amend the overlay policy so that residents of neighborhoods who want to prohibit cannabis can no longer apply to the county to create a special zone in areas where cannabis is currently allowable. Two supervisors dissented, saying they thought creating the special zones is a waste of resources.

In 2017, the county contracted with a consultant, Michael Baker International, for no more than $142,000 to create the overlay policy. It was an early amendment to the cultivation ordinance, which would continue to be refined for many years to come.

The overlay zone process currently allows residents to gather signatures to petition the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to create special zones that are exceptions to existing cannabis regulations. If neighbors get 60% of landowners in their neighborhood to agree, they could potentially opt out, by prohibiting cannabis in an area that is otherwise zoned for it. Until 2019, they could also opt in, which would allow cultivation on small parcels where the county’s new cultivation ordinance forbade it. Growers who were already situated in areas where growing was not permissible would be able to stay, if they were in an opt-in zone. Otherwise, they would have to move on after three years.

At the beginning of the process, Laytonville opted in. Deerwood and Woody Glenn opted out. The Board declined an application for Mitchell Creek to opt in.

Then this year, two neighborhoods petitioned the county unsuccessfully to opt out. An attempt in Redwood Valley led to accusations of racism and gerrymandering, followed by an enhanced code enforcement action. Then the Board shot down an opt-out request by a Willits-area neighborhood that was largely on rangeland, where cannabis is already prohibited.

Applicants spent thousands of dollars and staff at the Planning and Building Department worked up a report for the Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors.

Assistant County Counsel Matthew Kiedrowski explained some of the proposed redlines, or amendments to the ordinance, saying that, unlike other rezoning projects, the overlay process involves staff review, referrals to other agencies, and environmental review, all without any initial review by the Board of Supervisors or the Planning Commission. “Given these issues, it is proposed that the creation of these districts be commenced only by the Planning Commission or the Board,” he said. “Persons and neighborhoods may still seek either a CA (Cannabis Accommodation, or opt-in zone) or a CP (Cannabis Prohibition, or opt-out), district, but must ask either the Planning Commission or the Board to initiate this process. To be clear, these changes do not bar the creation of new CA or CP districts, or affect existing CA or CP districts.”

The Board held three votes before they arrived at directions that a slim majority agreed on. Supervisor Maureen Mulheren said she doesn’t think creating prohibition zones is a good use of county resources. “I am and continue to be concerned about the lack of resources within the county, particularly within Planning and Building and County Counsel’s office,” she said; “specifically around our inability to move quickly enough to create more housing and more economic development…It is our job to make sure that we’re using our resources in the most economical way, and I don’t think that this particular issue is a key priority.”

Supervisor John Haschak said he doesn’t think people living where cannabis is already prohibited, like small rural residential parcels, should be able to weigh in on prohibiting cannabis. The proposed Redwood Valley opt-out zone was in mixed agricultural and residential zoning. Haschak also wants to make sure compliant growers don’t get kicked out when they find themselves in a new prohibition zone. He also supported the ability of neighborhood groups to bring forward an application for an overlay zone, saying, “Taking this right of the people away from the people and putting it in the hands of individual supervisors is not the way to go.”

He was unable to get enough votes. Supervisor Ted Williams said he had spoken to people in Redwood Valley who complained about being harassed to sign the petition. “Two told me that they were asked for money,” he reported; “That in order to, quote unquote vote in this petition, they had to pay up. So I think we have this process that’s setting us up for conflicts that should never exist. If there’s a petition, either it should be to the supervisor, or, if the county government is running the petition, it needs to be a fair and defined process. It can’t be left up to a community to gerrymander boundaries and pressure people to sign. I think that’s what we’ve witnessed. If the community decides they don’t want cannabis in their area, I can support that. But I don’t think we have a fair process today.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde argued for a knowledgeable approach, and for keeping a provision that makes overlay decisions binding for a period of ten years. “In the perfect world, what we would have is, the applicants would move forward, and the county supervisor from that district would intervene and say, well let’s work with county planning staff and let’s make a better proposal,” he said. “But that didn’t happen. And now the reaction of this Board — and I don’t feel like this Board is terribly sure-footed on planning issues — is saying, well, I don’t know how to intervene. I don’t know enough about planning issues. But I don’t want these community members who also don’t know much about land use, who aren’t land use planners, don’t have the money for attorneys and land use professionals to work for them, I don’t want them to propose anything, but I also don't want to intervene myself. So we just want to have a process where county supervisors could propose it. For the most part, (that) sounds like there won’t be a proposal from county supervisors. Unless, perhaps, a political supporter of theirs initiates something.”

The Board directed County Counsel and Planning and Building Services to come back to the Board at an unspecified date with a proposed version of the overlay policy that includes a supervisor working with petitioners; keeping an overlay zone in place for ten years; and not allowing people on parcels that are ineligible for cultivation to weigh in on opt-out petitions.

Supervisors Mulheren and Williams dissented.

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.