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Pigs Fly: SB Supervisors Vote 3-to-2 for Possible Tougher Rules on Future Cannabis Grows in County

By Melinda Burns

Signaling a dramatic change from past policy, the county Board of Supervisors said this week it would consider requiring more stringent zoning permits for future outdoor cannabis operations — any “grows” that don’t make the 1,575-acre cap that the board has set for cultivation, chiefly in the North County.

On Tuesday, the supervisors voted 3-2 to direct county planners to draw up an ordinance amendment that would require a conditional use permit for those cannabis projects. Under such permits, cannabis “grows” must be found to be “compatible with” and “not detrimental to” the surrounding neighborhood.

Zoning permit approvals for outdoor cannabis will likely reach the cap in just two weeks, county Planning & Development Director Lisa Plowman told the board.

That will leave 1,560 acres that have been proposed for cannabis cultivation, are under county review - and won’t make the cap, she said. These projects can be approved for permits, Plowman said, but the applicants won’t get their business licenses and or be allowed to start operating unless a grower who qualifies for a license under the cap fails to get one or lets it expire.

Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents much of the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally designated American Viticultural Area west of Buellton, proposed the stricter permit regulations, and not for the first time.

In recent years, the county’s approval of permits for 350 acres of cannabis in the Sta. Rita Hills has provoked three lawsuits and generated bitter conflicts with vintners and Buellton residents.

Cannabis critics have long complained about the smell of pot that wafts into their neighborhoods and wine tasting rooms at harvest time. Vintners fear that the smelly gases given off by cannabis might harm their grapes; and there have been clashes over potential pesticide “drift” from grapes.

Applications for 250 additional acres of cannabis are in the pipeline and under review for the Sta. Rita Hills, county reports show. On Tuesday, Hartmann raised the possibility that the cap on cannabis cultivation might be lifted in the future, though she says she “absolutely” does not support such a measure.

Odor control future. Under current permit regulations, most outdoor cannabis growers cannot be required to install odor control technology, reduce the size of their operations or provide large buffers from neighboring farms and homes.

“If we look at the Santa Rita Hills, the die is pretty much cast,” Hartmann said. But with a conditional use permit, Hartmann said, the county could require the latest innovations in odor control for future projects.

“Our current standards might seem quite dated in the future, if we open up that cap,” she said.

Board Chairman Bob Nelson of Orcutt, who represents a portion of the Sta. Rita Hills, agreed with Hartmann, and so did Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the South Coast from eastern Santa Barbara to the Carpinteria Valley. Williams said, “I agree we should not go past the cap; it’s too soon for that.”

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino of the Santa Maria Valley and Supervisor Gregg Hart, who represents western Santa Barbara and the Goleta Valley, opposed requiring conditional use permits across-the-board for outdoor cannabis, saying they had no intention of lifting the acreage cap in the first place. Hart said the cap was “the smartest thing we ever did.”

“I don’t understand why we’re talking about lifting the cap,” he said. “That’s a terrible message.”

Widespread demand for limits. Last year, the board majority of Hart, Lavagnino and Williams voted against a motion by Hartmann that would have required conditional use permits for cannabis cultivation and processing throughout the county, including the Carpinteria Valley. Separately, they also voted against her motion to require such permits for the Sta. Rita Hills wine region alone.

The county Grand Jury; county Farm Bureau; Santa Barbara Vintners; Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis; Concerned Carpinterians; the cities of Buellton, Goleta, and Carpinteria and a host of homeowners’ associations urged the board last year to require conditional use permits for cannabis projects across-the-board as a way to rein in an industry they viewed as disruptive and out-of-control.

“My office has been working towards this for a long time,” Hartmann said after the hearing. “We want to have an opportunity to take what we’ve learned and apply it to future permits. "

Marc Chytilo, an attorney for the coalition, said the group “has asked for conditional use permits because they give the county much greater control over cannabis projects.” As for the acreage cap, he said, it’s “the third rail in Santa Barbara County’s cannabis permit process, a central element that limits the scale of the industry here.”

“The board’s unanimous endorsement signals that the cap is here to stay,” he said.

Williams said he voted in favor of conditional use permits this time because he and Hartmann had not been able to secure a per-parcel cap on cannabis in the Sta. Rita Hills; and because, in the North County, “I am not always seeing growers working with the Planning Commission to modify projects.” Finally, Williams said, “I want to discourage applications that go far beyond the cap.”

It will take six months to draw up the ordinance amendment and go through public hearings, Plowman said. The new permit requirements would not apply to the Carpinteria Valley, where the board has set a cap of 186 acres on cannabis in greenhouses.

Growers want more. In two separate hearings before the board on Tuesday, a handful of growers and their agents pressed the supervisors to lift the 1,575-acre cap in the North County.

One attorney suggested recalculating it, based on the actual canopy of the marijuana plants and not the entire area covered by hoop-houses.

Several growers said the cap could hurt the county because, if and when interstate cannabis trade is legalized, the current glut of cannabis would quickly become a thing of the past. Still others said they had gotten caught up in the drawn-out permit application process, only to watch the clock run out on them.

Among the petitioners were Jay Pretto and Eric Lightman, who said they been trying to obtain a conditional use permit for a five-acre “grow” near Lompoc since 2019.

“We’ve seen other projects get on their way, and, as we approach the cap, it looks like we might be left high and dry,” Lightman said. “I would urge you to consider small farms like us … Give us the opportunity to come out the other end with an operational farm.”

Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free. Nick Welsh of the Santa Barbara Independent contributed to this report.

Images: Hoop house cannabis grows in Sta. Rita Hills near Buellton (Melinda Burns); Map of he Sta. Rita Hills region, a federally designated American Viticultural Area

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