By Melinda Burns
Santa Barbara County planners granted a permit this spring to a cannabis greenhouse operation called Island Breeze Farms -- despite a still-pending 2021 county lawsuit accusing the grower of creating “a continuing public nuisance,” failing to make progress on a zoning permit application and engaging in “unfair competition."
The permit approval has confounded Carpinteria Valley residents who thought, given the legal action against Island Breeze, that the project would be shut down.
“It’s a perfect example of a broken system,” said Jeremy Norris, who lives next door to Island Breeze, a “grow” on two acres at 3376 Foothill Rd. at the western end of the valley.
Norris said the “skunky” stench of pot from the grow not only has caused him and his family to suffer headaches but also to lose rental income: “If they’re approved, they will devalue my property and make my financial life more difficult," he said. "There have been warm days when you feel sick breathing the air around you.”
Across the street, residents at the exclusive Polo Condos say they have protested for years — in emails, phone calls, odor complaints, letters and a meeting at the club with county officials, including Das Williams, their county supervisor — that the smell of pot wafts into their homes, particularly during summer and especially at morning and night, when the greenhouse roof vents are opened wider to allow heat to escape. The entrance gate to the condos is 50 feet from Island Breeze.
As recently as March 3, the following anonymous odor complaint was filed with the county with reference to 3376 Foothill: “Woke up in my bedroom this morning to the stench of pot, and my right nostril clogged. Every door & window closed in the house. It comes down our shower vents and chimney! After several minutes, I had a headache. This has got to stop.”
Now Norris and the Polo Condos board, representing more than 300 residents in 140 units at 3375 Foothill, next to the polo fields at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, have appealed to the county Planning Commission to deny the permit for Island Breeze that Planning and Development department staff approved on March 31.
A hearing date is pending; it is likely to be this summer. The commission’s vote can be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors by either party.
“Tired of appeals.” Island Breeze is just the latest of dozens of cannabis projects to confront an appeal — either by residents of the Carpinteria Valley, where the county has allowed flower greenhouses to convert massively to industrial-scale marijuana on the doorstep of densely populated neighborhoods, or by residents of the North County, where outdoor grows have proliferated.
Although the stench in the valley is not as bad as it was several years ago, it still lingers in a number of hot spots, and Foothill Road is one of them.
The county usually approves cannabis permits on appeal. In drafting their cannabis ordinance of 2018, the supervisors sought to “develop a robust and economically viable legal cannabis industry,” overriding “significant and unavoidable” impacts from “objectionable odors.”
“We get so tired of appeals; they’re never successful,” said Jim Mannoia, president of the Polo Condos board. “But we think that this particular grower is not a good citizen. They’re a bad actor.”
Mark Brickley, the condo board secretary, added: “We’re hopeful that at some point, the county will say no.”
The Polo Condo residents, who include retirees and families with children, love their views of the ocean and the mountains, their front-seat views of polo matches and the feel of being out in the country and not hemmed in by urbanization, the board members said.
But the smell of cannabis can be awful, they said; and, besides the residents, it affects hundreds of children who attend summer camps at the club.
Williams, who is chair of the Board of Supervisors, was a chief architect of the cannabis ordinance and has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the cannabis industry, said this week that the lawsuit against Island Breeze and Island View Ranch, the property owner, has not been withdrawn. A trial date that had been set for this month has been continued to October to allow more time for permit review and settlement negotiations.
“Lawsuits take time,” Williams said. “We remain in litigation against Island Breeze across from the polo fields because we believe they no longer qualify to grow under our rules. They retain the right to apply for a permit, but that doesn’t mean that the Board of Supervisors will grant it, and indeed I believe we should not generally hand a permit to someone who won’t comply with our orders.
“If they don’t get a permit, they will lose their state licenses and be shut down," the First District supervisor claimed.
Mixed messages. The 10-acre property at 3376 Foothill includes Island Breeze, the cannabis operation; Island View Nursery, a business that sells landscaping plants and garden accessories, and a separate nursery business that sells plants wholesale.
The zoning permit approved for Island Breeze would allow cannabis cultivation in 13 greenhouses, each with five harvests per year; and two rooms for drying, trimming and packaging the harvested product.
The permit would require the use of a “vapor phase” system of perforated pipes along the roof ridge lines of some greenhouses, and around the perimeter of the others, to set up a curtain of mist — a plant-based chemical vapor that is meant to “mask” the smell of cannabis.
State and county records show that Island View Ranch LLC is registered to Robyn Whatley Miller of Thousand Oaks and Lois Von Morganroth of Ventura. Whatley Miller, who signed the permit, did not respond this week to a request for comment on the lawsuit or the appeal by the Polo Condos; Von Morganroth said through a representative that she had no comment.
Back in 2021, the county sued Island View Ranch and Island Breeze, alleging that the cannabis operation “has not diligently pursued the required permits as its application has been pending with the County for over two years” and “has operated a commercial cannabis business at the Property without the required land use entitlement or business license.”
The operation “constitutes a continuing public nuisance” and has committed “acts of unfair competition,” the county alleged. By failing to comply with “regulatory safety measures,” it said, Island Breeze and Island View Ranch were profiting “to the detriment of lawful cannabis businesses operating in the county.”
Gary Bright, a Carpinteria attorney for Island View Ranch and Island Breeze, filed a response to the lawsuit in 2021, stating that the defendants “neither directly or indirectly performed any acts which would constitute a violation of any laws or regulations,” and had not engaged in practices “likely to mislead an ordinary consumer or constitute unfair competition.”
No “applicable laws or regulations define the alleged conduct of the Defendants as constituting a nuisance …” Bright stated, adding that the county’s arguments were “uncertain, ambiguous and unintelligible.”
Bright did not respond to calls for comment this week.
The affidavit. California voters approved recreational marijuana in 2016. Today, Santa Barbara and Humboldt counties routinely exchange the No. 1 ranking for the largest number of active cultivation licenses in the state; each has roughly 20 percent of the total.
In SB county, as long as the growers signed an affidavit declaring that they had been cultivating medicinal marijuana before Jan. 19, 2016, the Board of Supervisors allowed them to continue operations and even expand them exponentially under “legal, non-conforming” status — so long as they applied for permits. The county largely took these affidavits at face value.
The board of the Polo Club Condos has pushed hard for an investigation of the matter, with no success.
Two years ago, the board obtained a copy of the cannabis lease for Island Breeze. It was for one greenhouse, and it went into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, meaning the grower would have had just 18 days to get a medical marijuana operation up and running before the cutoff date for legal, non-conforming status. County records show that the grower signed an affidavit in February 2018 stating that he had been growing medical marijuana before Jan. 19, 2016.
The condo board hired a lawyer to take statements from several residents in the neighborhood who said they had not observed or smelled cannabis on the property before the cutoff date.
One of them was Norris, who said he walked the property as a prospective buyer in January 2016 and saw no marijuana there. It wasn’t until October 2017 that he smelled the stench of pot from Island Breeze next door, Norris said.
In 2021 and again this January, the condo board sent the information it had gathered to the county Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney, Planning and Development and Board of Supervisors, requesting an investigation of Island Breeze’s affidavit. Both times, the condo board said, there was no response.
“We feel that there’s pretty solid evidence that no marijuana was being grown before the cutoff deadline, and that the affidavit was false,” said Mark Brickley, the board secretary. “What this leads us to is a narrative that the operators of this site have not been forthright.”
In an interview, Williams objected to the condo board’s assertions that the county had been unresponsive.
“The whole reason we did a case is because the neighbors raised the issue of the affidavits,” he said, referring to Island Breeze. “We think it’s really important for the rules to be enforced. We gathered affidavits from the neighbors about what they saw in activity there.”
Mannoia said he knew of no one at the condos who had given a declaration for the lawsuit. The suit does reference “several complaints in the past two years concerning cannabis odor from the property and about the extent of a cannabis grow.”
Before 2021, Williams said, there was a point when Island Breeze appeared to have suspended operations and “I hoped it was the last we’d see of them.” When operations started up again, he said, the county filed suit.
Subduing the smell. This May 2, county officials conducted their first odor inspection at Island Breeze; a report will be available in the coming weeks.
Only five of the greenhouses were in active cultivation during the inspection, officials said. According to the condo board, that could explain why the smell has been much less noticeable during the past two months, although in cold weather, residents tend to keep their windows closed.
The permit for Island Breeze would require the installation of a Byers Scientific vapor-phase, or misting system, to mask or neutralize the smell of cannabis. That is the most widely-used odor control system across 35 operations and 155 acres of cannabis in the valley. But over the years, many residents have complained that the perfume-y smell of the chemical mist bothers them just as much as the smell of cannabis.
Responding to the complaints, a few growers now are using, or have pledged to transition in coming years to, carbon filters, or “scrubbers,” to replace their misting systems. The scrubbers are installed inside the greenhouses to eliminate the smell of cannabis before it can escape through the roof vents.
Last year, Coastal Blooms Inc., a group of cannabis operators in the valley, conducted an odor study at a greenhouse that they equipped with state-of-the-art Envinity scrubbers from the Netherlands. It showed that, on average, the scrubbers could eliminate 84 percent of the cannabis smell inside a greenhouse.
Yet the county has not required the use of these or any other scrubbers, industry-wide.
County records show that Island Breeze has had a Byers vapor phase system since at least 2021. Before the county filed its lawsuit that year, an attorney for Byers informed the officials that Island Breeze was using the system only a few hours every day, or not at all, and was diluting the neutralizing chemicals with water.
“We want to make it clear that Byers Scientific will accept no responsibility for any odor-related issues with this facility,” said Michael D. Head in a June 16, 2021 email to Planning and Development.
After the lawsuit was filed, Head noted, Island Breeze began running its vapor system full-time.
Cluster of cannabis. Condo board members say that as part of their permit appeal, they will bring up the cluster of cannabis operations at the western end of the valley and the expansion of Island Breeze from one greenhouse in 2017 to 13 greenhouses today.
Just 700 feet to the southeast of the Polo Condos is Vista Verde Farms, a 13-acre grow that was approved for a permit at 3450 Via Real, but is not yet up and running. Vista Verde has been required to install scrubbers but is allowed to fall back on a misting system, if necessary.
“It’s going to be hard for any odor technology to defeat the amount of cannabis being grown in the western end of the valley,” Brickley said.
Two years ago, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge ruled that the county’s policies, ordinances and environmental review allowed for clusters of cannabis grows and the expansion of medicinal grows.
Bottom line. “It’s very frustrating,” Mannoia said. “The legalization of marijuana is the law; we understand that. But when it begins to cause problems, it’s very difficult to retain a sense of the good faith of those who represent us. Every time we do what we’re told to do, it seems to come to naught.”
Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her report to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.
Images: Weed Wars (Facebook); The entrance to the Polo Condos, 50 feet from Island Breeze, the white structures across the road (Courtesy); Polo Condos board leaders (L-R) Jim Mannoia; Mark Brickley; Robyn Geddes (Courtesy); The Polo Condos, at left, at the western end of the Carpinteria Valley, where a cluster of industrial-scale cannabis has been approved by the county. (Courtesy).