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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Das, Who Lost Every Carp Precinct to Roy, Says Cannabis Was Not an Issue. His Neighbors Beg to Differ.

Updated: Apr 9


 

By Melinda Burns


In the March 5 election, First District county Supervisor Das Williams lost every precinct in the City of Carpinteria to his challenger, City Council member Roy Lee, garnering only 33 percent of the vote in the town they both call home.

 

In 2020, by contrast, Williamswon every precinct, and 56 percent of the vote in the city of Carpinterita, when he defeated Laura Capps, then-president of the Santa Barbara Unified School District board, in his successful bid for a second term.


 The city’s 2-to-1 flip for Lee last month gave the new supervisor-elect a decisive boost of 3,497 votes toward his narrow win district-wide, final election results show.


Lee won the district by only 565 votes, garnering 12,745, or 51 percent of the total, to Williams’ 12,180, or 49 percent. Besides Carpinteria, the First District includes the eastern portion of Santa Barbara; and unincorporated Summerland, Montecito and Cuyama and Carpinteria valleys.

                                                                                                                                       

As an architect of the county’s 2018 cannabis ordinance; Williams paved the way for the conversion of 33 flower greenhouse operations on unincorporated land, ringing the urban boundary of Carpinteria with cannabis. To date, 170 acres of pot — about 129 football fields’ worth — have been approved for zoning permits just beyond the city limits. Of these, 116 acres are under cultivation, all in greenhouses with open roof vents that release the “skunky” smell of pot into the outside air.

 

“It’s like a black eye,” Lee said during a recent interview at the Uncle Chen Restaurant on Casitas Pass Road, where he is a chef and co-owner. “Carpinteria is known for our strong community values, our hospitality, our beaches, our mountains, our avocados and lemons.


"Now it’s ‘the land of weed,’ and we’re known for the highest density of cannabis ‘grows’ in the state, if not the county," he added. "How did that happen? It happened so fast, we were blindsided. Nobody from the council ever supported this.”

 

Many Carpinteria Valley residents view what’s been dubbed the “cannabis industrial complex” as a menace to their health and quality of life.


Since mid-2018, records show, they have filed 3,687 odor complaints with the county, including 71 this year. The stench of pot, they say, has caused them to suffer headaches, sore throats and respiratory problems.

 

Williams, however, claimed in a recent interview that cannabis didn’t have much to do with his defeat at the polls. Issue No. 1, he said, was Lee’s popularity; No. 2 was his own support for affordable housing.

 

“Cannabis didn’t come up a whole lot,” going door-to-door during the campaign, Williams said.


“People who were incensed about it were incensed about it, but that was not the dominant dynamic by any stretch of the imagination, though it contributed to who gave money to Roy," he added. "There are vastly more people in Carpinteria who are worried about how housing shapes our little town than are concerned about cannabis.”

 

A political earthquake. But Concerned Carpinterians, a loosely knit group with an email list of 350 people; and the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a countywide group of 200 people, have been seeking stronger odor control for the cannabis industry since 2018.


So has the Carpinteria council with Lee on board, and many residents of The Polo Condos, Padaro Lane, La Mirada Drive, Sandy Cove, Shepard Mesa, Cate School and other neighborhoods.

 

“We didn’t think that Roy could win, but the groundswell from Carpinteria was the engine for it all,” said Ann Louise Bardach, a national journalist and a backer of Concerned Carpinterians.


“Das can say what he wants to say, but the cannabis movement set the momentum," Bardach said. "Everybody knows this. It was a political earthquake, a political miracle and hope against hope; and I give all of us a lot of credit. We made a lot of noise for six years.”

 

Williams said he’s tried and will keep trying to clear the air.

 

“I wish I was able to effect change more rapidly on cannabis,” he said. “I was always trying to do the right thing, even if it was more unpopular, but I think I should have been more inclusive in the deliberation of how to get to the right thing.”

 

As for his lackluster showing in town, Williams said, “Roy’s popularity in Carpinteria really helped him. I get that. He’s lived here longer than me. There were a lot of people who were potentially normally Das voters but still supported Roy because of those relationships. Lots of people who liked both of us had a hard time choosing. Walking doors, I still got a lot of positivity.”

 

Williams said his support for building more rental housing in Carpinteria for working people hurt him at the polls, too.

 

“People want young people to be able to live there, but they’re afraid of losing some of the charm,” he said, asserting that he has always sought to tell his constituents what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. “I really think there are some things that need to be discussed truthfully. We have an inconsistency between the things we want and how we get there.”

 

Williams also blamed low turnout for his defeat, noting that it was only 47 percent, district-wide, on March 5, compared to 65 percent in 2020. According to a statement from Williams’ office, this year’s turnout in Carpinteria was down by 15 points, and “preliminary data shows that the drop-off appears even larger among under-45-year-old voters, Democrats and Hispanic/Latino voters.”

 

“There’s many authors of any campaign victory, but the biggest issue is turnout,” Williams said. “I hope people walk away from this knowing that it shows clearly how important it is to vote in a local election.”

 

A boatload of yard signs. Lee, a Taiwanese immigrant who has been a council member for six years, will take office as supervisor next January. He was such a long shot to beat Williams, a politician with 20 years of experience in local and state government, that some Carpinterians figured they were playing the lottery when they cast their votes for him on March 5.

 

Yard signs were the first indication that Lee might pull it off, said Wade Cowper, Lee’s campaign manager and a longtime communications consultant for the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis.

 

“It was pretty apparent, early on, that we were going to be running up the score in Carpinteria rather than changing minds,” he said. “You could tell, driving around Carpinteria, that we had a boatload of yard signs — like, ten to one for Lee is an understatement, by far.”

 

Back in 2018, residents such as Bardach were hiring exterminators to look for skunks under their homes — until it dawned on them where the stench was coming from.


Outraged cannabis critics began packing into board hearing rooms and flooding the board with letters. Furious about a cluster of cannabis “grows” around the high school, they asked the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles to investigate (to there has been no public response). In the 2020 elections, they backed Capps for supervisor, but she failed to unseat Williams.

 

The coalition has spent more than $1 million appealing cannabis projects (and losing); signing an odor control pact with growers (it fell through); suing the county (and losing); and filing two lawsuits against Carpinteria Valley growers (one was settled and one is pending).

 

From the dais, Williams sometimes upbraided his Carpinteria critics. He told them he was “enormously jaded” by their actions. He said they had “gotten angrier the more we tried to accommodate them.” He lectured them on “the moral bankruptcy of NIMBYism.”

 

“We voted for Roy because he will be a better listener,” said Anna Carrillo, a retired teacher who keeps close tabs on cannabis permits as a coalition member and a board member of Concerned Carpinterians.

 

No going back. Most growers in the valley have installed piping systems that set up a curtain of mist around the greenhouses to neutralize the smell of pot after it escapes outside. But the “skunky” smell persists in a number of hot spots around the valley, from the foothills to the beach, and the “laundromat” smell of the mist can be just as bad, residents say.

 

A key part of Lee’s campaign in Carpinteria was his support for the installation of state-of-the art filters, called carbon “scrubbers,” in every valley greenhouse; and a complete phase-out of the misting systems. A scrubber developed for the valley by the Envinity Group, a Dutch air purification firm, was shown 15 months ago to eliminate 84 percent of the smell of pot before it escapes from the greenhouse roof vents and into the outside air.

 

The owners of Ever-Bloom, 11 acres of cannabis greenhouses at 4701 Foothill Road, installed 110 Envinity scrubbers in 2022 for about $2.2 million to settle a coalition lawsuit.


But Williams has long opposed any requirements for scrubbers across-the-board, insisting he can get faster results by persuading growers to do the right thing.

 

Santa Barbara County is second only to Humboldt County for the number of active state licenses for cannabis cultivation — 710 compared to 1,207. And Santa Barbara County has approved 1,966 acres for cultivation to date — 170 acres in Carpinteria Valley greenhouses and 1,797 acres in outdoor grows, chiefly in the North County. The outdoor grows are capped at 1,575 acres.

 

So, no one is talking about turning back the clock on the industry here.

 

“The horse is out of the barn,” said Jill Stassinos, a teacher, a Concerned Carpinterians board member and an appellant on several cannabis projects. She said she went door-to-door for Lee, phoned eligible voters on his behalf and donated to his campaign.

 

“There’s no way they could go back, but they could remedy the ordinance they put in place,” Stassinos said. “We all felt Roy was a long shot and were so thrilled he won. It was like a beacon of hope. Roy unified people.”

 

“The solution is there.” In 2020, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury concluded that the supervisors, led by Williams and Supervisor Steve Lavignino, “simply opened the floodgates” to the industry, with “some supervisors aggressively pushing their own agendas.”

 

Williams stands by the cannabis ordinance, however, calling it “very strong in terms of accountability and standards on growers.” He notes that it is more expensive for growers to comply with standards here than elsewhere in the state. For example, greenhouse operators in this county must submit “odor abatement plans” as part of their permit applications.

 

“Mandatory odor control is a totally new thing, and Carpinteria is the only place that got it,” Williams said.

 

Even without Williams’ vote, the board could tighten odor control regulations before Lee takes office next Jan. 1.

 

Late last year, Supervisor Bob Nelson, who represents the 4th District in Orcutt, Los Alamos, Vandenberg Village, Mission Hills and eastern portions of Santa Maria, requested a board hearing on the matter, saying a “shift to best available control technology” was needed.

 

That hearing is now scheduled for April 23. County officials will present information on the findings of Geosyntec Consultants, an engineering firm that has been inspecting misting systems at cannabis operations in the valley; and county planners, who have been using Nasal Rangers, an odor detection technology, to survey hot spots throughout the valley.

 

Supervisor Laura Capps, who was elected in the 2nd District in 2022, representing the eastern Goleta Valley, Isla Vista, UC Santa Barbara and portions of Goleta and Santa Barbara, says Carpinteria Valley growers who are creating an odor problem should be required to install scrubbers.

 

“I believe the Coastal Commission will be a motivated partner in fixing our ordinance,” she said this month. “I’m looking forward to a new chapter … one that is less divisive and more conducive to how we can all live together.”

 

Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who was re-elected on March 5 in the 3rd District, representing the Santa Ynez Valley, Lompoc, western Goleta and the Gaviota Coast, has said she supports banning any detectable odor beyond the property lines at both Carpinteria Valley greenhouses and outdoor North County operations.

 

Currently, the county requires growers only to "prevent odors from being experienced within residential zones," which leaves out parks, schools, roads and farms and has been difficult to enforce.


But at $22,000 each and a recommended density of 10 per acre, Envinity scrubbers are expensive. To date, only five of 20 active greenhouse operations in the Carpinteria Valley are fully equipped with them, county records show. Another six are slated to install them this year.


That leaves no requirement for scrubbers in two-thirds of the 170 acres of greenhouse cannabis approved by the county so far.

 

“We thought the board would immediately institute them, but they just kind of shrugged,” said Lionel Neff, a retired attorney, coalition director and a donor to Lee’s campaign. “The solution is there. It’s accessible, and yet the county doesn’t support it yet.”

 

Meanwhile, Ever-Bloom is in the final stages of testing an odor sensor developed by Envinity for permanent use inside valley greenhouses Such a technology, providing detailed, time-based data, would be a breakthrough: it could help county inspectors identify which cannabis operations are responsible for the smell of pot in surrounding neighborhoods — a goal that so far has largely eluded them. The sensor is expected to be on the market this summer.

 

“That’s the kind of thing I want to see,” Williams said. “That’s very exciting.”

 

“Hard for Roy.” Besides scrubbers in every greenhouse, Lee’s supporters would like the board to require stricter zoning permits called “conditional use permits” for all new cannabis operations in the valley. For years, the city, Concerned Carpinterians and the coalition tried but failed to persuade the board to require these permits, which they believed could have limited the size, concentration and proximity of the greenhouse “grows.”

 

Under a conditional use permit, which automatically requires a county Planning Commission hearing, a project must be “compatible with” and “not detrimental to” the surrounding neighborhood.

 

In addition, Lee’s supporters want the board to ban detectable odors beyond greenhouse property lines; enforce odor regulations; install cannabis sensors around the high school; stop renewing the annual business licenses of growers whose greenhouses are a focus of odor complaints; reduce the overall acreage in valley cannabis through attrition or other means; and implement a complaint system that puts the burden on growers, not residents, to monitor the smell of pot.

 

“Those demands are going to be really hard for Roy to execute,” according to Williams.

 

Williams believes it would be a “bad idea” to require scrubbers in all greenhouse operations because better technologies could emerge in the future: “No serious environmental law is drafted tying yourself to a status quo technology, even if it’s cutting edge," he said.

 

Besides, he says, any amendment to the cannabis ordinance to require scrubbers would have to be approved by the state Coastal Commission, a process that could take two years.

 

At his request, Williams said, Graham Farrar, owner of the Glass House Farms at 5601 Casitas Pass Road, three acres of greenhouses that have been a frequent target of odor complaints, has recently installed the first of 12 Envinity scrubbers.

 

Also, Williams said, he spoke to Tadd McKenzie, co-president of the Pacific Dutch Group, regardingInternational, a five-acre cannabis greenhouse operation at 4532 Foothill Road near Carpinteria High School. International has installed four Envinity scrubbers and converted to all-nursery marijuana plants. Nursery plants do not give off the odor of mature plants.


Concerned Carpinterians says it was the group’s appeal to the county Planning Commission that resulted in a requirement for scrubbers at this operation.


Finally, Williams said, Autumn Shelton and Hans Brand of Autumn Brands, six acres of cannabis at 3615 Foothill — another address that has triggered odor complaints — “will be one of the next ones” to install scrubbers, “and that’s because I asked them to.”


“Some of them agreeing to change now is better than waiting years for all of them to change,” Williams said of valley growers. “I think there is going to be a lot of improvement this year, while I’m still in office. Anything that Roy initiates is going to take years.”

 

Last fall, however, tired of waiting, the coalition sued Case and Alex Van Wingerden — whom Williams said he had persuaded to install scrubbers at Ceres Farms, a nine-acre cannabis greenhouse operation at 6030 Casitas Pass Road.


The lawsuit alleges that the Van Wingerdens’ operations at both Ceres and the Valley Crest Farm, an additional nine acres of cannabis at 5980 Casitas Pass, are creating an “ever-present noxious odor” in the neighborhood. The lawsuit has been on pause this spring while the Van Wingerdens conduct a test of a scrubber called CleanLeaf. These scrubbers cost about $4,500 each.

 

“We’re not going to stand in the way of experimenting, but it’s our belief they will have to purchase Envinity scrubbers,” Neff said.

 

Members of the Van Wingerden family have been among dozens of industry sources who have donated nearly $150,000 to Williams' various campaigns for supervisor.


One of the plaintiffs in the coalition’s lawsuit against them is Chonnie Bliss Jacobson, who lives on Casitas Pass Road. Campaign statements show that four members of the Bliss family, not including Chonnie, donated $22,000 to Lee’s campaign on Feb. 23, 10 days before the vote.

 

“Mistakes were made.” Lee took office as a Carpinteria city councilman in early 2018, just as Williams was drafting the cannabis ordinance behind closed doors, consulting with growers and industry lobbyists. Carpinteria residents were not paying much attention; the community was reeling from the shock of the catastrophic debris flow of Jan. 9 that year.

 

The city council, though, was already expressing its “deep concern,” firing off letters urging the board not to rush things, with Highway 101 buried in mud and Carpinterians unable to get to the board hearings.

 

“Virtually no revisions to the cannabis regulations … have been made to address the issues raised by the city,” a Jan. 29, 2018 letter from the city said.

 

In fact, since late 2017, Lee said, the council has sent 24 letters to the board, trying to rein in the burgeoning industry at its doorstep.


The council urged the board, without success, to require conditional use permits for cannabis; create 1,000-foot buffers between cannabis greenhouses and homes and schools; require separation zones between greenhouse operations; cap the size of individual grows; set a standard so that odors “may not be detectable at the property line”; and share tax revenues with the city to address the increase in greenhouse traffic.

 

“We got minimal to no response at all,” Lee said.


“I feel like they just threw the letters in the trash," he added. "It’s frustrating, because a lot of neighborhoods were affected so gravely. We spent a lot of our staff time working on those letters. That took a lot of energy and money, and nothing ever came of it.


"The county disregarded our experience," he said.

 

In its most recent letter, dated Nov. 13, the city reminded the board that, “dating back to at least 2017, the City has advocated for the most stringent odor control regulations possible …” The letter “strongly urges” the board to designate carbon scrubbers as the “sole best available control technology” for “nuisance cannabis odors.”

 

Lee said that his son, a student at Carpinteria High School, located just outside the city boundary near five cannabis operations, used to come home smelling like pot. Lee said he hears that students still sometimes get an overpowering whiff of the stuff when they open their classroom doors.

 

“The school is what really bothered me,” he said. “How can kids concentrate in the classroom? Imagine if it were next to San Marcos High School [in Goleta] or Santa Barbara High School. People would be incredibly angry. Yet it’s next to Carpinteria High. It feels like we get treated so unfairly …

 

“Many mistakes were made, and I won’t let that happen. That’s not how you run a business, that’s not how government is done. It has to be transparent," Lee said. "It has to be transparent. Now we’ve got loss of trust in our government. I will take this negative and turn it positive. I want to serve the people’s needs and wants. I’ll try to do it from my heart.”

 

Williams said that, taken together, what the city and the citizens’ groups were asking for was “legislating cannabis out of existence, and I think that would be a real mistake … I think the black market has far worse effects on society than marijuana grown by your neighbor at a greenhouse that pays a good wage to local people.”

 

During a campaign forum at Girls Inc. on Feb. 20, when Lee brought up the city’s multiple letters to the board, Williams responded:  “We have to treat each other like neighbors. If there is something we need to talk about, we need to have discussions.


"I don’t think sending a strongly worded letter to the county is the way to solve a problem," he added. "It's to have a conversation together about something.”


 

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 reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.


Images: Roy Lee and his wife, Tina, at their Uncle Chen restaurant (Carl Perry photo); Map shows county-approved zoning permits for 33 cannabis greenhouse operations around the city of Carpinteria, as red and orange dots. Ten operations are awaiting county business licenses (Santa Barbara County Planning & Development).


 


 

 

 

 

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