Planners Push Back on Permit for Busted Lompoc Pot Farm
(Editor's note: Melinda Burns, veteran environmental reporter and community hero, is keeping an eye on the high-stakes controversy over Santa Barbara's transformation into a cannabis capital of California. With most of our small but scrappy local press corps focused on the singular issue of COVID-19, Melinda provides coverage of the county's biggest ongoing land use issue to local news organizations as a public service).
The county Planning Commission this week postponed a vote on a zoning permit for a large cannabis operation in Cebada Canyon, a bucolic community of rural ranchettes northwest of Lompoc, noting that Sheriff’s deputies raided the premises just four months ago, confiscating $1 million in alleged contraband.
The permit would allow 16 acres of cannabis cultivation in hoop houses and one acre in greenhouses on a 102-acre property owned by Avo Vista Farms LLC at the end of Cebada Canyon Road. Herbal Angels, a non-profit corporation and the project applicant, ran a cannabis operation on four acres there.
As a policy matter, the dispute over the zoning permit for Herbal Angels is important because it highlights the giant loopholes in the county’s lenient regulatory approach toward the industry since 2016, when California voters legalized marijuana for recreational use.
In mid-December, 20 members of the Sheriff’s Cannabis Compliance Team raided Herbal Angels.
On March 13, the county District Attorney’s office filed charges in Santa Barbara County Superior Court against the owners – two counts of felony perjury and falsification of public records, and two misdemeanor counts of possession of marijuana for sale and violating of the state health and safety code.
“That bothers me, because I went there on the property and it was represented to me that everything was on the up-and-up,” Commissioner John Parke, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley and western Goleta, said at Wednesday’s hearing. “… I don’t see how they can act as a legitimate applicant here.”
Commissioner Michael Cooney, who represents Carpinteria, Montecito and eastern Santa Barbara, said, “It’s impossible to look at this project without being colored by that.”
The commissioners said they would like to know the court outcome before they decided on the permit, brushing aside advice from staff planners and lawyers for the county and Herbal Angels, who urged them to focus solely on land-use considerations. After nearly five hours of discussion, including public comments from several dozen people who spoke by phone or emailed a letter to be read aloud, the commission voted 5-0 to continue the hearing to May 27.
The commissioners asked for more information on traffic, water use, landscape buffers, odor control and a 40,000 square-foot building for marijuana processing and storage that Herbal Angels was proposing to build.
“What do they intend to do – especially these folks?” asked Parke, noting that the building was 10 times larger than anything proposed at other cannabis farms.
How we got here. In late 2017, the Board of Supervisors decided that if a grower signed an affidavit affirming that he was growing medicinal marijuana before Jan. 9, 2016, the county would forward the necessary “letter of authorization” to the state for a temporary business license.
The crucial decision meant that, if a grower submitted such an affidavit, he was not required to obtain neither a county zoning permit nor a county business license up front..
These growers, who now make up most of the cannabis industry in Santa Barbara County, were designated as “legal, non-conforming”; they were allowed to continue growing marijuana while they applied for a county zoning permit and county business license.
Three years after the statewide vote to legalize, most of those permits and licenses are still pending here. Without the affidavit and state license, the “grows” are illegal.
Eli Sheiman, a co-owner of Herbal Angels, now faces two felony counts for allegedly lying on his affidavit in early 2018. According to the DA’s complaint, Sheiman falsely claimed that Herbal Angels was a “legal, non-conforming” operation – that he was growing medicinal marijuana there before 2016. Sheiman and co-owner Mariette Wingard were both charged with misdemeanors.
In a separate claim filed on Jan. 15 in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, the state is seeking the forfeiture of $202,873 from Herbal Angels – cash that may have been found onsite during the raid.
The county Sheriff’s Department has confirmed that Sheiman and Wingard are the owners of Herbal Angels, but the commission appeared not to have that information on Wednesday. Parke asked Rebecca Mendribil, the attorney for Herbal Angels, for their names.
“We’re not going to answer any questions that have to do with any criminal orders going forward at this time,” she replied. “Those issues are relevant when it comes to the business licensing. Today, we stick to the land-use requirements.”
Parke said, “My position is, it is extremely relevant because it goes to the credibility of the applicants.”
Parke later noted that Herbal Angels had been suspended by the California Secretary of State for failure to pay Franchise Tax Board charges.
“They failed to answer our questions today, and I find that very offensive,” he said.
The permit that Herbal Angels has applied for would run with the land, not the operator. In theory, that means that if the commission grants the permit and the owners of Herbal Angels lose their state license because of a felony conviction, Avo Vista could lease the property to a different operator, and the project would proceed.
On Wednesday, Parke pressed staff planners in vain for information about the owners of Avo Vista and their relationship to Herbal Angels. Avo Vista is a shell company with opaque ownership, registered with the Nevada Secretary of State.
“A little piece of heaven.” Cebada Canyon, located a mile north of Highway 246 and about three miles northeast of Lompoc, is one of North County’s 54 “existing developed rural neighborhoods,” places that were zoned for low-density agricultural and residential uses.
There are about 50 homes in the canyon. The residents, some of whom board horses on 20 acres, raise a few goats or grow hay and wine grapes, describe a loss of paradise in recent years as seven cannabis operations, including Herbal Angels, took root in their midst. They want the county to ban cannabis cultivation outright in or around rural communities such as theirs.
“People move here to raise families, dogs and maybe a horse or two,” Randy and Barbara Miller of Cebada Canyon wrote to the commission this week. “We have community workdays to maintain our roads and get together for neighborhood BBQs. It is truly a little piece of heaven for us and our neighbors … Permitting this large-scale, commercial facility to operate will essentially destroy everything we have built for the past 30 years.”
Residents say their narrow two-lane road with its blind corners cannot handle a steady stream of big trucks and employee traffic from a cannabis “factory” in their box canyon. They told the commission they have had to put up with bright night lights, mysterious nighttime truck traffic, noisy generators and ugly views of a sea of hoop houses at Herbal Angels – plus the “skunky” stench of cannabis that traps them inside their homes.
“It’s a paralyzing feeling to not have control over your future and not be able to enjoy or plan while this life-altering project looms,” Leigh and Ronnie Johnson told the commission.
In addition to more than quadrupling the area of cannabis in cultivation, the proposed permit for Herbal Angels and Avo Vista would allow the construction of a parking lot with 50 spaces and two two-story buildings for processing, drying and storage – 12,000 square feet and 40,000 square feet in size, respectively.
A 43-acre avocado orchard that provides a buffer for the neighborhood could be cut down – residents told the commission it is already being cut down – but it would be replaced with a buffer of native plants and shrubs, 100 feet wide.
Ferini said he wanted to send the larger building back to the drawing board for a more aesthetic design. Parke and Commissioner Daniel Blough, who represents the Santa Maria Valley, questioned why one of the proposed odor control systems would not encircle the entire property. Cooney asked why so much water – 500,000 gallons – needed to be stored in tanks on the property. And several commissioners wanted to know why the avocado trees were being taken out.
Additionally, Cooney said, the three-year-old environmental impact report that covers all of the county’s cannabis applications is out of date. For one thing, he said, it does not consider the impact of the clusters of cannabis farms that have popped up next to residential neighborhoods such as Cebada Canyon.
“This project is not ready for approval,” Cooney said.
Jobs and taxes. Under the proposed permit, 20 year-round employees would work on the property at 2761 Cebada Canyon Road, plus an additional 36 employees during four 10-day harvests. And on this point, a number of Herbal Angels supporters, including employees, friends and other cannabis growers, told the commission that the county could not afford to lose the jobs and taxes that the project would provide, especially in these precarious times.
Emmanuel Estrada of Santa Barbara, a former Herbal Angels employee, said he had been “enthralled to be a part of such a well-run operation that brought happiness and joy not only to me, but also all who heartily gave hours of their lives to grow the cleanest high-quality organic cannabis possible.”
It would be “heartbreaking and a tragedy to force talented and hard-working passionate people” out of work, Estrada said.
Zach Rengert stated that he had known the Herbal Angels owners for 10 years and could vouch for them as “honorable entrepreneurs.” Jennifer Fornero of Lompoc wrote, “Our farming community needs to be allowed to participate in the cannabis industry for the same reasons we allow wine and avocados.”
And Mark Ervin of GreenGro Biological, an organic soil amendment company, said he had worked closely with Herbal Angels and found them to be a “breath of fresh air” compared to “conventional farmers” who use chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“They have always been excellent at maintaining the highest organic and environmental standards on their farm,” he said.
As the long hearing came to an end, county Planning and Development Director Lisa Plowman, who had earlier told the commissioners, “The land use process is about the use and not the user,” now reminded them that the Avo Vista property was zoned for commercial agriculture.
“As much as cannabis is an unsavory product, water use would increase if somebody put in strawberries,” she said.
In the end, however, commissioners decided there were too many uncertainties to proceed, at least for now.
“To me, there’s still a lot of questions,” said Commission Vice-Chairman Larry Ferini, who represents the Lompoc Valley and Orcutt. “I feel very rushed on this. I’m not ready to deny or approve.”
-- By Melinda Burns
Images: The site of the disputed cannabis cultivation operation at the end of Cebada Canyon Road. The applicant, Herbal Angels, was growing cannabis on four acres under hoop houses, shown in the foreground; the operation was raided and shut down by the Sheriff’s Department in December. In the background is another of the seven cannabis farms operating in the canyon; Planning Commissioner John Parke (SB Independent); Cannabis watchdog; Planning Commissioner Mike Cooney (ctc.ca.gov); Cannabis watchdog.