Protesters decipher cannabis farms ahead of Sonoma County regulatory hearing

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A crowd of around 40 gathered at the entrance to the Sonoma County government administrative center Monday morning in hopes of curbing proposed new rules that would make it easier for growers to get a permit to grow cannabis plants and more open up soil where these farms can go outside of the cities.

The demonstration preceded Tuesday’s supervisory board hearing, which could give the county’s agriculture commissioner’s office more powers to grant cultivation permits without a public announcement or hearing.

This streamlined process, which is two years in the making, is long overdue, say supporters, who find it has been five years since California legalized adult marijuana. Despite the presence of around 3,000 growers in Sonoma County, only 184 growing permits have been issued.

However, the ordinance is fiercely opposed by some rural residents, who argue that cannabis farms near their neighborhoods will already be sucking up scarce water, attracting thieves, emitting a strong, lean odor, and lowering property values.

“Dry wells cannot fight fires,” warned a woman poster.

“No pot on our property!” sang Diana Barnacle, whose battery-powered megaphone carried her voice for at least a quarter of a mile.

The regulators, meanwhile, were in a closed session – they met remotely – and discussed the legal implications of the proposed regulation. Opponents have threatened to sue if the county passes the revised rules before preparing a full environmental impact report.

The proposed regulation would allow outdoor cannabis plantations to comprise 10% of all plots of 10 acres or more, removing a current 1-acre farm limit that would remain limited to land that is zoned for agriculture and resource development is.

A county planning document said the change would include up to 65,753 acres, but added that it was “extremely unlikely” that all of the available land would be used for cannabis cultivation.

“I understand we need revenue,” Barnacle said, referring to the tax dollars the county raised for legal marijuana permits and sales. “But if it comes at the expense of our water and our environment and our quality of life, then it’s not worth it.”

Like the majority of protesters, Barnacle lives in the Liberty Valley, a rural residential area northwest of Petaluma. To hear the residents of Pepper Road, Pepper Lane, Jewett Road, and Mecham Road, groundwater in the area is scarce and there is nothing left for cannabis, a notoriously thirsty crop.

“There’s no water,” said Michael Cole, whose one-year-old daughter was napping under the awning of her stroller in the middle of the protest. “We’re getting 0.8 gallons per minute” from the well on his property.

“We’re getting a gallon,” interrupted a friend.

George Baur, who has lived on Pepper Road for more than 70 years, pointed out that the large landfill nearby has its own water problems. It must be based on water from a well near Washoe House, a roadhouse 1.6 miles away.

Fears that cannabis farms could drain Sonoma County’s aquifers are grossly exaggerated, said Erich Pearson, executive director of Sonoma County’s Cannabis Business Association and owner of SPARC, a San Francisco-based cannabis retailer with storefronts in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Sonoma.

Yes, marijuana plants need a lot of water – “but only 50% more than grapes,” he said.

The regulation, which is being reviewed by the county, contains strict measures to ensure that cannabis farms are only operated when there is sufficient water.

“This is the only crop in the county that requires a hydrologist to prove there is enough water,” Pearson said, referring to cannabis. “It is the only harvest in the county where the landowner has to give the officials a relief to monitor the well, but also the well [water] Meter.

“If you want to shout above water, shout at another industry, not the cannabis industry, because we are leaders in conservation. What the county has suggested for cannabis growers in regards to water and water monitoring is as progressive and forward-thinking as any other. “

Diana Barnacle, the mother of Petaluma Councilor Brian Barnacle, was one of several protesters who voiced fears that commercial cannabis farms could bring crime. She owns real estate in Humboldt County, the home base of the government-based black market cannabis industry. “Up in the emerald triangle,” she said. “I see what happens. One of the farmers up there has just been shot. “

Pearson argues that such fears for the regulated companies are not real. He points out that there is far less crime involved in legal cannabis operations. “When we hear about guns and crime, it’s always illegal growth,” he said.

“People are going to get their cannabis one way or another. When we speak out against legal growth, we are promoting illegal growth – and that’s where crime happens. “

But the crowd that gathered under the ice-cream cone-shaped sculpture in front of the administrative center on Monday was adamant in their demeanor.

“I’m not against the pot,” said Joy Ambra. “I think it’s wonderful medicine. I smoke it myself.

“I’m only against commercial growth in my neighborhood.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ ausmurph88.