Santa Barbara County's Pot Wars Raging in Wine Country
By Melinda Burns
It is a winter of discontent for many Buellton-area vintners and residents, as two more outdoor cannabis operations -- one of them slated to be the county’s largest -- were approved for the picturesque Sta. Rita Hills wine region.
How and whether the county requires odor controls on these early projects – SFS Farms OpCo 1 at the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills and Central Coast Agriculture at the eastern end – will set a precedent for nearly 800 acres of outdoor “grows” that are proposed and in various stages of county review here, critics say.
In all, the county has received 24 applications for cannabis cultivation in the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally designated American Viticultural Area between Lompoc and Buellton.
“The situation is going to be made worse and worse, the more of these that are approved,” Kurt Ammann, general manager of the Melville Winery, told the county Planning Commission last week. “It will be the end of a heritage form of agriculture in this county.”
At the Feb. 3 hearing, representatives of the Melville, Gainey, Zotovich and Kessler-Haak wineries, joined by a group of neighbors on Highway 246, were appealing a proposal by SFS Farms for 87 acres of cannabis – about 65 football fields’ worth – that was approved last fall by the county Planning Director. At a minimum, they asked the commission to scale down the project and move it away from nearby vineyards.
SFS Farms would overwhelm nearby homes and tasting rooms with the skunky smell of pot, these critics said, and the prevailing winds would blow the odors into Buellton. The vintners also said they were worried about the potential damage to their grapes from the oily compounds, called “terpenes,” that are released into the air by marijuana plants.
“You’re talking about a massive, massive size difference over what the commission has reviewed so far,” Ammann told the commission. “The odor is going to affect residents and hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to this area to spend money. We have invested over $10 million in our tasting room and estate winery. We conduct 100 percent of our tasting outside.”
Keith Saarloos, a Los Olivos vintner, reminded the commissioners that “there’s pictures of vineyards in your offices.”
“Cannabis is untested, untried and could hurt this industry,” he said. “We’ll lose something that makes our county special.”
Farmer vs. farmer. Speaking for SFS Farms, Larry Conlan, an attorney, called the vintners’ arguments “misinformed,” “biased” and “fear-mongering” and claimed that the Melville Winery was “fanning the flames with the flyers it sent out to the community.”
SFS Farms is south of the tasting rooms and eight miles from Buellton; and its size – 87 acres on a 965-acre ranch – is not significant, Conlan said. The cannabis that will be grown there, he said, is a strain that smells like “vanilla dessert.” And there is no scientific evidence that cannabis terpenes can damage grapes, Conlan said.
“This is the type of project that the county cherishes for cannabis,” he said.
Kapono Curry, an agent for the owners, Drew Webb of Reno, Nev. and Jason Kiredjian of Manhattan Beach, asked, “When did we get the right to tell a farmer what he can and can’t do with his own property?”
Bob Campbell, a third-generation farmer, is leasing a portion of his ranch at 4874 Hapgood Rd. to SFS Farms. He said many agricultural commodities have come and gone in the region because they were not profitable, including mustard seed, dairy products, sugar beets and flower seed. Campbell runs a cattle operation and grows strawberries and vegetables.
“Vineyards are not the only agricultural use that counts,” he told the commission. “Cannabis will allow families like mine to have the income we need to keep our farms intact and in production.”
But Dan Gainey, a third-generation farmer whose vineyard lies next to SFS Farms, countered that previous crops in the Sta. Rita Hills went out of business because of market conditions, not because they were “forced out” by “incompatible uses.” The county’s general plan is supposed to protect agriculture and “assist farmers to continue farming,” Gainey said.
“I’m for cannabis,” he said. “I’m just not for it at the expense of existing viable operations.”
Commissioner John Parke of Solvang proposed reducing the project to 42 acres and creating a 1,500-foot buffer between it and the vineyards downwind. Echoing Gainey’s remarks, Parke said a larger project would undermine “the integrity of agricultural operations” in violation of the county’s general plan.
The other commissioners said they liked Parke’s idea because 87 acres of cannabis was “too much, too soon.” But Planning Director Lisa Plowman said county ordinances did not allow them to reduce the size of the project. In the end, the vote was 4-1 in favor of SFS Farms, with Parke opposed. No odor controls were required.
“My heart goes with the opponents; my head goes with the applicants,” said Commissioner Mike Cooney, whose district includes the Carpinteria Valley, where a proliferation of cannabis greenhouses has pitted neighbor against neighbor. “To change the rules on them at this point is not a safe thing for us to do legally.”
Finally, the commissioners said they were frustrated by the dueling studies on the impact of cannabis terpenes on wine grapes that are cited by both sides. They voted 5-0 to solicit bids for an independent analysis, if the county Board of Supervisors agrees.
“I’m very impatient about this,” said Commissioner Dan Blough of Santa Maria. “We’ve been talking about it for two years and it’s time to get it done.”
In all, the hearing was a disappointment to Billie Meyers, who has lived for 45 years on a hillside off 246, enjoying the fresh air and pristine view. Her home is one mile from SFS Farms.
“When that odor wafts over in the first harvest, I’ll invite the planning commission to have a glass of wine on my deck,” Meyers said.
Central Coast Ag. The commission’s vote on SFS Farms comes on the heels of its unanimous Jan. 13 approval of Central Coast Agriculture, a 32-acre hoop-house operation at 8701 Santa Rosa Road, near the eastern gateway to the Sta. Rita Hills.
Unlike SFS Farms, Central Coast Agriculture is less than half a mile from a rural neighborhood and requires a conditional use permit, a more restrictive zoning permit that applies to only five of the cannabis projects in the pipeline west of Buellton.
John De Friel, the Central Coast Agriculture owner and CEO, was required to install carbon air filters in his processing building and place an odor-neutralizing piping system around one corner of his property. In addition, he must fresh-freeze his plants within two hours of harvest; investigate and address neighbors’ odor complaints, and perform onsite weather monitoring.
Those are more rigorous measures than what was required for Busy Bee’s Organics, Castlerock Family Farms and West Coast Farms, three outdoor grows that were approved last year on 22 acres, 23 acres and 50 acres, respectively, along Highway 246 in the Sta. Rita Hills. All three are now the subject of citizen lawsuits against the county.
Last year, the commission, county Grand Jury, county Farm Bureau; cities of Buellton, Goleta and Carpinteria, and a host of citizens’ groups urged the Board of Supervisors to require conditional use permits for all cannabis operations. But the board majority rejected the idea.
At Central Coast Agriculture, De Friel is voluntarily growing low-odor strains of cannabis and, most of the year, he has no plants in the ground. There are two harvests, one in the spring and one in the fall, each lasting up to three weeks.
“One of our big concerns is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” De Friel told the commission in January. “We really don’t have an odor problem at this property.”
Two commissioners said they visited Central Coast Agriculture during a recent harvest and didn’t smell anything.
“I think we’ve come up with the best way of dealing with odor control that we can,” Parke said.
No testing required. But the commission did not require De Friel to test for odor at harvest time, a control measure that both the City of Buellton and the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis had lobbied for. The coalition, a countywide group of 200 residents, farmers and vintners, seeks tougher regulation of the burgeoning industry.
Buellton residents say the stench of cannabis during the fall harvest last October lingered everywhere – in schools and residential neighborhoods, at freeway exits, on the Avenue of the Flags, at the Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden and River View Park and in the wine tasting rooms on Industrial Way.
Busy Bee’s and Central Coast Agriculture are the only two cannabis projects operating near town, but even so, it’s hard to tell which one is responsible for the smell on any given day, City Manager Scott Wolfe said.
“Unless the county mandates odor testing on each and every parcel, you’re not going to be able to prove anything,” he said. “There’s not going to be a way to determine where the smell is coming from.”
The coalition recently appealed the commission’s approval of Central Coast Agriculture to the county Board of Supervisors. It’s one of 30 cannabis appeals filed by both sides since 2018. (At press time, the appeals period for SFS Farms had not yet expired.)
Testing can demonstrate whether the odor control equipment and low-odor strains of cannabis at Central Coast Agriculture are actually working, said Marc Chytilo, a coalition attorney.
“They claim they’ve never been responsible for odors,” he said. “They should be able to demonstrate that they’re not causing odors beyond their property line.”
Theresa Reilly, a retired Buellton teacher and a board member of WE Watch, a Santa Ynez Valley citizens’ group, said the smell of cannabis gives her headaches, sinus problems and a sore throat. The county requires residents to identify the source of an odor when filing a complaint, Reilly said, but without testing, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the source.
Last October, after keeping a daily log and driving around, following her nose, Reilly filed a complaint against Central Coast Agriculture.
“I’m not anti-cannabis,” she said. “I just want to hold people accountable. We had two really bad weeks in 2020, but we’re looking at several really bad months in 2021 from the multiple farms that are going in.”
Fork in the road? To date, only two cannabis projects – CVW Organic Farms and Pacific Grown Organics, both of them Carpinteria greenhouse operations – have been required by the commission to implement comprehensive odor control plans. These measures include odor-neutralizing pipes, carbon filtration systems, testing for odor during the first harvest, extensive outreach to neighbors, and the use of “best available technology” to stop odors at the property line.
The owners of CVW and Pacific Grown voluntarily reached out to coalition members and negotiated agreements that are now part of their zoning permits.
“We have a fork in the road,” Chytilo said. “The industry could bend a little more and take some additional steps and demonstrate to the community that it’s going to do everything it can do to control these odors. That avoids having to go through these appeals and all the legal challenges.”
Commissioner Parke says people may call him a Pollyanna, but he believes progress is being made. To ensure compliance with the county general plan, odor controls for outdoor “grows” should include a requirement for a 1,500-foot buffer between cannabis operations and vineyards, Parke said; and testing for odors should be mandatory at harvest time. In addition, he said, the growers should be required to draw up “adaptive management plans” for addressing neighbors’ complaints.
At the January hearing on Central Coast Agriculture, Director Plowman told the commission that testing for odor control had itself “not been tested in an open field scenario.” But Mark Kram, a Santa Barbara chemist, says he is proving that it works. Kram is the owner of VaporSafe, an air toxics monitoring service that he has repurposed for cannabis.
Kram said he’s been working for more than a year with a handful of Carpinteria growers who want to know how well their odor controls are working. He said he hopes to convince them that daily, round-the-clock testing in and around their greenhouses could save them money. Testing can show the growers when to save energy by turning off their expensive odor-control systems, Kram said.
Simultaneously, a team of experts at Byers Scientific, an industrial odor management firm founded by Mark Byers of Summerland, is studying the chemicals that cause cannabis odors; the goal is to trap them before they escape into the community. Byers designed and engineered the odor-neutralizing piping systems that are widely in use on the outside of Carpinteria greenhouses; and, more recently, a carbon filtration system for indoor use.
“That’s the beauty of new industries: they spark innovation and competition,” he said.
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.
Images: Each red dot represents a separate cannabis grow application, representing nearly 800 acres in various stages of county review for the Sta. Rita Hills; Part of the 87-acre SFS Farms OpCo1 grow recently approved by county Planning Commission (Courtesy); Planning Commissioner John Parke (Courtesy); Part of the disputed, 32-acre Central Coast Agriculture cultivation project (Melinda Burns); A cannabis “hoop-house" operation and a hillside vineyard share a property boundary in the Sta. Rita Hills (Burns photo); Google Earth photo showing proximity of local wineries to the giant SFS Farms cannabis project.