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Proposed ordinances 'decoupled'

March 18, 2021 — The Board of Supervisors decoupled a proposed oak woodlands ordinance from the proposed Phase III cannabis ordinance last week and sent it to committee, pending an inventory of the oak woodlands in the county. 

Michael Jones, the UC Cooperative Extension Forest Advisor for Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma Counties, said the most recent data puts the local acres of oak woodlands and mixed hardwood canopy at 650,000, which is one of the highest percentages of such coverage in the state. But, with historically poor land management practices, fire suppression, climate change, and a host of other complications, local oaks also face a wide variety of pressures.

Initially, the oak woodlands ordinance was supposed to be adopted prior to or at the same time as the Phase III cannabis ordinance. But Assistant Director of Planning and Building Julia Krog said that Phase III, which is coming before the Planning Commission tomorrow, proposes that every cannabis grow will be subject to a site-specific discretionary review process. This would presumably include rigorous environmental reviews for every proposed project.

Jones referred to a study led by his predecessor, Greg Giusti, saying that there are many elements to a successful oak woodland protection program, including a voluntary program and general plan amendments. He cited “A Planner’s Guide to Oak Woodlands,” which advises forest and resource managers to assess what they have, determine what they want, how to get it, and how to get the desired results.

The Sanhedrin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society sent a letter to the board saying that “Data are needed to make good policy, but any attempt to improve the available data should not preclude immediate oak protections in Mendocino County.”  

But Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones echoed the call for an assessment of the oak baseline. She was also concerned with replanting requirements and regulatory redundancy. “The State Board and other governing documents do exist in precedent to oak tree removal connected to cannabis,” she pointed out. “So I’m just interested to see what sort of cohesion is going to take place in moving through the discretionary review process.”

She and Michael Jones are likely to work with Supervisors Glenn McGourty and John Haschak, the supervisorial ad hoc committee charged with assessing the woodlands.

Phase III is not popular, judging from the 100 or so public comments that had come into the Planning Commission as of yesterday afternoon. Haschak, who serves on the cannabis ad hoc committee with Supervisor Ted Williams, has come out against a proposal that would allow property owners to apply for a permit to grow cannabis on ten percent of their land. And he, like many environmentalists, is concerned about the possibility that Rangeland could be deemed agriculturally appropriate for growing cannabis. And a lot of people have an eye on ever-lowering aquifers.

But Kristin Nevedal, the county’s new cannabis program manager, does not expect more water use with the possible upcoming changes. She spoke earlier this week at a town hall hosted by the Cannabis Business Association of Mendocino County, moderated by Kate Maxwell of The Mendocino Voice. She said the state regulates water rigorously, from discharge requirements to rules around wells and storing surface water during the dry season. “And then the local jurisdiction also has the ability to further restrict water hauling,” she added. “So I think if we move into a more heavily regulated program where folks aren’t cultivating before they’ve gone through the local approval and the state approval and obtained all of their permits, we shouldn’t  see expansion of surface water draws and more water consumption.”

Wiliams, who has championed the discretionary permit approach, argues that the process would  allow for more overall environmental and neighborhood protections; and that the changes are the only way to align the county’s rules with the state rules, thus creating a pathway to state licensure by January. But Patrick Sellers, board chair of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, doesn’t believe Phase III will help the Phase I growers who are stuck in a years’-long limbo. And he thinks the environmental regulations under the proposed changes are overly onerous. 

“I think what this does is really just provide a narrow pathway for a limited number of well capitalized businesses who can handle the rigorous discretionary review process that’s being proposed, which is more than is necessary and is more than is done in other jurisdictions and essentially leaves the existing tax-paying operator in the dust, potentially cutting them out for good.” He also worried that, with CEQA considering cumulative environmental impacts, one large farm could create as much of an impact as several small farms, thus reducing the likelihood that the small farms would be approved.

The Planning Commission will take up the cultivation ordinance and a facilities ordinance at 9am on Friday, March 19. 

You can view the full town hall on understanding Phase III at The Mendocino Voice Facebook page.

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