Sonoma County residents deserve to know the true cost of commercial cannabis growing here. It's more than just growing plants; large-scale cannabis cultivation would radically change the character of our countryside. A draft ordinance is now before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors which seeks to dramatically expand cannabis growing here. We've laid out the facts below as to how this draft ordinance would impact us all.
Sonoma County’s Draft “Commercial Cannabis Cultivation” ordinance which you can read by clicking here. At 32 pages in length, the major changes to zoning are on page 10, changes to setbacks are page 11, lighting and security page 16, odor and noise page 17, waste management and water use on pages 18-21, and a glossary of terms on pages 26-32.
To read the County’s 102-page environmental document, the Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration (SMND), which accompanies this ordinance, click here.
Amendments to the County’s Zoning Regulations (aka Chapter 26) can be found here.
The Draft Proposed Amendments to Agricultural Resources Element of the Sonoma County General Plan is available here.
To see a map of Sonoma County's cannabis-permissible land parcels under this new proposed ordinance, please click here.
Napa County government commissioned this thorough 82-page report in August 2019 about the likely impacts of cannabis. It’s an interesting read from our neighbors on the many impacts we could face here, especially as relates to the 600% increase in water use for cannabis compared to grapes, as detailed in the first paragraph of page 20 of the PDF.
In February, the federal National Marine Fisheries Service within the Biden Administration wrote a letter to the County of Sonoma listing their concerns with the proposed cannabis ordinance. This letter states that "the current standards and requirements appear unlikely to adequately mitigate the potential impact of streamflow depletion, making a MND inappropriate” — which raises further questions about the County’s process — and that this ordinance’s “requirements will likely be inadequate” in preventing harm to endangered and threatened salmon species.
Unprecedented number of grows across Sonoma County
Under the current draft ordinance, Sonoma County would have an unprecedented number of new industrial cannabis grows, even outnumbering the number of acres currently being used to grow grapes. The blight from their industrial permanent structures, plastic hoop houses and outdoor grows will be significant.
Although it would seem that there are laws protecting our scenic highways and rural vistas, under this proposed ordinance an applicant would be able to secure a “ministerial” permit, which means that the Department of Agriculture would be issuing the permits based on a countywide checklist, not a site specific plan. This allows for industrial-scale development for the following sized parcels: 10 to 40 acres could have 1-acre of new cannabis structures, and parcels 40 or more acres could have up to 85,000 sq. ft. of new cannabis structures.
Furthermore, with security fencing and lighting, these structures would look more like a commercial self-storage facility than agriculture. And there could be hundreds, even thousands, of such operations across the county. This would negatively and significantly impact Sonoma County's beautiful open space, land in our scenic corridors and land earmarked as "view-scapes" in the County's General Plan.
Impacting residential neighborhoods
Due to how Sonoma County is currently zoned and built, this expansion of permissible acreage for cannabis cultivation paves the way for growers to establish cannabis operations in existing residential neighborhoods, changing the character of these areas and impacting the families who call them home.
If neighbors have any concerns as to the impacts, the ordinance's limits on no public hearings means neighbors have no formal way of voicing these concerns. As the ordinance says on page 9, “All decisions of the Agricultural Commissioner under this chapter are final, subject only to judicial review.” Neighbors would be forced to go to court.
Water impacts would be massive
The current draft ordinance provides no information on how much water would be taken for cannabis growth. But we know from our neighbors in Napa County, based on this 82-page report, that cannabis grows use over SIX TIMES the amount of water as grapes.
Water is a precious resource, which is why property owners and existing agricultural water resources (including well outputs) are closely monitored. This extra burden from cannabis grows on an already limited local water supply is one reason why Napa refused cannabis grows there.
Our homes are more important in COVID
In today's age of COVID, our homes and properties are seeing more and more use. Our homes are no longer just homes — they are schools, workplaces, playgrounds, places to relax and so much more. This proposed ordinance does not take this into account, like it does for traditional schools. In an era of distance learning and WFH (work from home), our homes need the same protections from cannabis as afforded to schools.
Furthermore, this ordinance does not account for how cannabis development will be pricing out home buyers and business owners who can’t compete with rising prices as grow operations multiply. We are already seeing unsolicited letters sent to homeowners from cannabis developers, offering to buy out their homes for grows. This has the potential to reduce our housing stock even more than vacation homes, hollowing out neighborhoods and communities in the process. Likewise, we’re already hearing of small business owners who cannot find light industrial shops because cannabis processors are driving up the prices. Small home owners and business cannot keep up.
Inadequate setback requirements
This draft ordinance also sets the required setbacks, defined as the space between where a grow can occur and the neighboring property, to just 100 feet to the property line and 300 feet to a neighboring building. (Source: County Ordinance, page 11)
One hundred feet is nowhere near adequate, especially for odor from outdoor grows, and 300 feet to a “neighboring structure” as the ordinance calls homes, is not much better. To clarify, rather than measuring the 300 feet distance from the neighbor's property line, it would be measured from the neighbor’s physical home. This means a homeowners' back yard, front yard or other outdoor space could fall within the 300 foot buffer zone and, thus, be impacted by round-the-clock, cannabis-related industrial noise, traffic, odor and lighting.
Odor limits lacking on outdoor cannabis
Cannabis cultivation also creates cannabis odor, like it or not. The current ordinance requires filtration and ventilation systems for constructed buildings for indoor grows, but is more vague on outdoor grows. Outdoor grows are to be “controlled” so their odor does not leave the parcel, but it does not indicate how this is done, nor have penalties for violations.
So if you’re bicycling, eating, wine tasting or living near a grow, and the wind blows your way, you will likely smell the skunk-like smell of weed nearby. And if you want to raise the issue as a local home or business owner, your only remedy is a lawsuit in civil court.
Harming our quality of life and scenic countryside
Our love of Sonoma County is based in large part on our rural character and small-town charm. But when expanded grow operations become commonplace across the county, the industrialization of our countryside will forever alter our region.
It's not just the proposed security fencing, factory-style indoor growing facilities, or plastic hoop houses and greenhouses made of highly visible light-reflective materials. The proposed ordinance also envisions cannabis events at cannabis growing operations, meaning increased traffic clogging rural roads, light and sound pollution from festival-style events and cannabis tourists driving intoxicated. Industrialized cannabis and weak county enforcement threaten our neighborhoods, view lines and scenic corridors.
We cannot underestimate the impact that this current draft ordinance would have on our scenic countryside. We must take action now to stop it.