“I think the neighbors are focused on what’s possible – what could happen,” Wall said during a Press Democrat Editorial Board meeting Tuesday.
Wall said growers would have to find the “perfect property” to cruise through the new ministerial permitting process, adding that most will end up back in the traditional process, which involves plenty of notice to neighbors.
County officials have so far forgone a formal environmental review, declaring instead that the changes would be no less strict than the current environmental protections.
But neighbors see the move as tectonic shift in the cannabis landscape that would greenlight more pot with less notice to nearby residents, a combination so unpalatable they’ve threatened to sue if county supervisors approve the ordinance before conducting a full Environmental Impact Report.
“The proposed changes to the cannabis permitting process will be some of the most significant land use changes in Sonoma County in the last 40 years and, during a crushing pandemic when families are struggling with immediate needs, almost no one who’s not already a grower or adjacent neighbor knows about it,” neighbors said in a May 3 letter to county leaders and media outlets.
The neighborhood coalition has requested more than 30 changes before they would offer their support for a new cannabis ordinance.
Along with their desire to see a full environmental review, neighbors pushed for a moratorium on permits until that review is completed, sought greater setbacks for growers and pushed for a prohibition on water being trucked onto cannabis cultivators’ properties.
In an interview last week, Rabbitt signaled he would lean toward a moratorium during Tuesday’s discussion. And Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the Sonoma Valley, said she feels the tide shifting toward an environmental review.
As for how to balance that with long-sought changes from industry leaders, Gorin said “that’s the conundrum the board faces.”
Although Wall said she favors an environmental review, she and other cannabis operators say it shouldn’t come with a halt to new permitting.
Erich Pearson, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Sonoma County and owner of SPARC, a San Francisco-based cannabis retailer with storefronts in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Sonoma, said too much time has passed already.
But he also acknowledged some of the delays have been understandable.
“County staff and our supervisors have been focused on really important issues, which are fires and pandemic,” Pearson said. “But our industry is dying on the vine over here.”
Michael Cole has lived along Pepper Lane, adjacent to a pending cannabis operation, with his wife and their combined family of four kids for the past six years.
He fears the proposed one-acre cannabis operation near his home could quickly triple in size if the county-wide ordinance is adopted. And with concerns that the operation could be a target for thieves, a problem that has been documented in the past in Sonoma County, Cole said his rural residential neighborhood isn’t the place for commercial cannabis.
“That’s one of my biggest fears, is the crime that it’s going to create, and the people it’s going to bring around here,” Cole said. “If this goes in, I’m not going to want my kids riding up and down the lane.”
Like Evenich, Cole also worries about water use amid what’s expected to be a historic drought. Cannabis is a water-intensive crop, using anywhere from double to six times the amount of water used to grow wine grapes, and Cole’s well is already pumping out less than one gallon per minute.
Similar complaints have played out county-wide.
Steve Rogers serves on the Valley of the Moon Water Board in Sonoma and as president of the homeowner’s association of the Chantarelle neighborhood on the Sonoma Valley floor southwest of downtown Sonoma.
He says he voted to legalize marijuana but feels strongly that if you asked all the people who voted in favor of cannabis if they want it grown in Sonoma, they would say no.
“Our local homeowner’s association (Temelec) is radically opposed to cannabis farming being allowed in the Valley,” he said. “It is not the right crop to run alongside a residential neighborhood, potentially just 300 feet from our homes.”
Rogers is also concerned about the state of the Valley aquifers, which he says will be “incredibly difficult and costly to restore.
“The Board of Supervisors is very pro-agriculture but they can’t keep approving projects with intensive water usage,” he said. “Our wells down here are going dry.”
Wall, who lives on her Penngrove cannabis farm with her family, including her infant daughter, considers many of the neighbors’ fears overblown. Operators have to agree to strict water usage requirements, she said, and she has no concerns about raising a child on her farm.
“In this day and age, I’m more worried about my daughter going to school than living on a cannabis farm,“ she said.
On Monday, Evenich’s Pepper Lane home boasted another “No Pot on Pepper” sign on an outbuilding. He had more signs tucked inside has front door, waiting to be set out.
His group, and the county-wide neighborhood coalition, have hired two communications specialists to get their message out, but he’s not sure it will be enough.
“I’m not confident at all,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now. I need to bring awareness to all of it.”
Sonoma Index-Tribune Managing Editor Lorna Sheridan contributed to this report.
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.