By Melinda Burns
It has been nearly four years since the county Board of Supervisors rolled out the red carpet for the cannabis greenhouse industry in the Carpinteria Valley, and still the community is plagued with the skunky smell of pot.
It greets residents when they open their front doors, closet doors, car doors and washing machines. It wakes them up at night. It lingers at schools, beaches and freeway exits. Many say the pungent smell has caused them to suffer headaches, sore throats, nausea and respiratory problems.
As most of the valley’s cut-flower greenhouses in recent years converted to pot -- mostly without zoning permits -- two citizens’ groups, called Concerned Carpinterians and the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, have pressed the supervisors to rein in the cannabis industry, without much success. Last year, Concerned Carpinterians launched a campaign to unseat Supervisor Das Williams, whose district includes the valley, but he won re-election.
Now, in a bow to political realities, the coalition, a nonprofit group with 200 members countywide, has changed tack. On Aug. 20, the group signed an odor-control agreement with its former adversary, the Cannabis Association for Responsible Producers, or CARP Growers, representing the owners of 21 greenhouse properties.
“As a result of our extended negotiations, I’ve come to believe that the growers really want to do the right thing,” said Rob Salomon, a coalition board member.“They don’t want to be associated with an industry that has stunk up the Carpinteria Valley and made them a pariah in the community.
“The contract puts in place a path to technology and protocols well beyond what the county ordinance requires," he added..
At the heart of the pact is a “model odor abatement plan” that requires the members of CARP Growers to install “best available odor control technologies” — widely believed to be carbon filtration systems called “scrubbers” — to get rid of the smell of pot inside their greenhouses, before it can escape through the vents in the roofs.
Both parties say they are hopeful that with scrubbers in place, the valley’s smelliest hot spots can be cleared up by the end of 2022. The growers with the most odor complaints, they say, will get top priority for new scrubbers. The first big shipment, 150 of the latest models, costing $20,000 each, is expected to arrive here in mid-November from The Netherlands.
“I’m very excited to see this deal happen,” said Autumn Shelton, the CARP Growers president and a co-owner of Autumn Brands Farm, a nine-acre“grow” at 3615 Foothill Road. “It was definitely very close to falling apart. The coalition wanted more than what a lot of the growers can promise. We want to hold to our words. Whatever we promise, we’re going to deliver.
“It’s a monumental feat to be able to have accomplished this and come to terms with each other," he said.”
A new era in Carp Valley? During the past 12 months alone, Carpinteria Valley residents have filed 913 odor complaints with the county. It’s not only the “skunky” smell of pot, but also the “laundromat” smell of the odor-neutralizing greenhouse “misting” systems to which they object.
Hot spots for the noxious odors have been Padaro and Cravens lanes; La Mirada Drive and Meadow Circle; the Polo Condos; and homes in the cul-de-sacs nearest the greenhouses on Foothill Road, the stretch between Nidever and Casitas Pass roads that some call “Cannabis Alley.”
“I’ve probably sent 60 complaints to the county in the last 90 days,” said Paul Ekstrom, a retired firefighter whose kitchen window on Manzanita Street is 65 feet from Ever-Bloom, a cannabis greenhouse at 4701 Foothill that is owned by Ed Van Wingerden, a CARP Growers member.
“We might go eight to ten days without odor, then three to four days with a bad odor,” Ekstrom said. “You’ll either smell the skunk or a coverup odor. I just want the stink gone.”
Members of CARP Growers hold 299, or 88 percent, of the 338 provisional licenses issued by the state for marijuana cultivation in the valley. Half of the 18 landowners who signed the agreement are Van Wingerdens or Brands, two families that rose to prominence in the cut flower industry, decades ago.
In addition to installing “best available” technologies for odor control, the members of CARP Growers will be required to implement a sophisticated network of wind stations throughout the valley to help anticipate odor episodes and identify which greenhouses are causing them. They also must sample the air for odors during the first seven days of operations after their permits are issued.
In an expansion of the county’s rules, the growers are required to send twice-yearly odor control reports to community outreach lists. They must follow a lengthy set of protocols for responding and investigating odor complaints — not only from homes but also “publicly accessible places” such as parks, schools, churches and businesses.
The agreement does not require the growers to address the noticeable stench of pot on roads such as Foothill and Casitas Pass; but both parties have agreed to “taking such steps as are necessary” to reach that goal in the future.
The model odor abatement plan will be incorporated into the county zoning permits for each CARP Growers operation and will run with the land. Some of the odor-response protocols will be enforced by the coalition; CARP Growers and the coalition say they may jointly hire a “compliance officer” to keep track of the shared data from odor complaints, air sampling and the weather stations.
The county is to enforce the growers’ odor abatement plans, hiring a consultant to ensure that odor-control technologies are functioning as promised, said Lisa Plowman, the director of Planning & Development.
To date, 82 acres of greenhouse cannabis in the Carpinteria Valley have been approved for county zoning permits; 222 acres are under review, and 186 acres will be allowed. Once the growers get their permits, Plowman said, “There will be investigations when we get complaints.”
“The biggest challenge in this process is trying to figure out where the odors are coming from, because of the proximity of the grows,” she said.
The parties’ stated goal under the agreement is to reduce odors so that none are detectible beyond the greenhouse property lines. Critics of the industry have long urged the Board of Supervisors to include such a requirement in the cannabis ordinance itself.
The agreement sets out a series of steps for growers to follow, working with the coalition, to clear up the smell when no single “grow” is the clear source of a complaint.
“It’s a new era for farmer-community relations in Carpinteria,” said Graham Farrar, who co-owns G&K Farms at 3561 Foothill and Mission Health Associates at 5601 Casitas Pass, where he is growing eight acres and six acres of cannabis, respectively, under the Glass House Farms brand. “The coalition has identified that odor is the issue they want solved, and we’re going to figure out how to solve it.”
Inside the compromise. The agreement may mark the end of a political era, one in which the coalition was a thorn in the side of theBoard of Supervisors, doggedly — and quixotically — pushing for ordinance amendments that would require stiffer permits for cannabis operations countywide.
Simultaneously, the coalition appealed to the board to overturn a dozen cannabis zoning permits in the valley. Every appeal took months, delays that the growers could ill afford because of the looming acreage cap on cannabis.
Upping the ante last year, the coalition and Ekstrom sued Ever-Bloom and four other Van Wingerden greenhouse operations on Foothill, alleging that the owners failed to give residents “relief from the awful smells and noxious odors and chemicals that they are being assaulted with on a daily basis in their homes.”
Now, that lawsuit is on hold. The coalition has pledged not to oppose or appeal any more permits, so long as the growers adhere to the terms of the agreement.
“This is not an ideal situation, but I don’t see an alternative,” Salomon said. “We appeal, we appeal, we appeal, we appeal; we lose, we lose, we lose, we lose.”
The coalition has withdrawn its appeals of two CARP Growers projects — Autumn Brands and Bosim 1628, a six-acre cannabis greenhouse operation at 1628 Cravens Lane. In all, 12 projects that have been approved for permits, including these two and Farrar’s G&K Farms, will be required to upgrade their operations to meet the terms of the agreement, a process that could be expensive and time-consuming.
The agreement does not include a dozen cannabis greenhouse properties whose owners are not members of CARP Growers. Salomon said the coalition reserves the right to contest the zoning permits for those projects if they do not meet the standards of the agreement.
Nick Bobroff, a principal planner for the City of Carpinteria, which has weighed in many times in support of more stringent permits and restrictive rules for the cannabis greenhouse industry, said the agreement “sounds to me like a promising development for helping to address and improve odor concerns here in the valley.”
“We’ve gone ‘round and ‘round with the county multiple times,” Bobroff said, adding that he was speaking for himself and not the city council. “If the county’s not willing to work with the community to make changes, this seems like the next best option.”
Still concerned Carpinterians. So far, the agreement has been released in full to only a few people, including Bobroff and this reporter; Salomon, a retired businessman and a Carpinteria resident, said it would be posted on the coalition’s website in the coming weeks.
Besides Salomon, the signers representing the coalition board are President Blair Pence, a North County vintner; Lionel Neff of Carpinteria, a retired businessman; and Evan Turpin of Carpinteria, the group’s treasurer.
News of the compromise, as outlined in a recent press release, has angered some members of Concerned Carpinterians, a loosely knit grassroots group of about 300 people that, alongside the coalition, has long advocated for stronger regulation of the cannabis industry.
The group parted ways with the coalition earlier this year over its change in strategy, and this summer publicly attacked Marc Chytilo, the coalition’s attorney, a key player in the private negotiations with CARP Growers.
“I think they’re trying to put a bandaid on a problem that has to be solved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors,” said Bobbie Offen, who lives on La Mirada Drive. “It should be something written in stone.”
Paul Foley, a Concerned Carpinterian member and an avocado grower, called the agreement “hollow.” His orchard lies next to Cresco California, a CARP Growers business with eight acres of cannabis greenhouses at 3861 Foothill Road.
“It only represents the names of the people who sign it and very few others,” Foley said of the agreement with the coalition. “I’d like to see some de facto regulation of the industry; sheriff’s deputies driving up and down, county cars coming into this driveway. There’s no surveillance. There’s no enforcement.”
The Foley family and Sarah Trigueiro, a resident of La Mirada Drive in the foothills above Foothill, have appealed to the Board of Supervisors to overturn two cannabis zoning permits that were approved by the county Planning Commission this year. They are the permits, respectively, for Cresco’s operations and Farrar’s proposal for a cannabis processing warehouse at G&K Farms.
Both growers have been required by the commission to install carbon scrubbers — Cresco, in its warehouse and greenhouses, and Farrar, in his warehouse. If these alone can clear up the smell of pot, Cresco says it will decommission its “misting” system. But the Foleys want guarantees, noting that just a few years ago, the vapor systems themselves were being touted as the end-all solution to the pervasive smell of pot.
Ninety residents signed a petition opposing the Cresco project, which is on land owned by Rene Van Wingerden; and 100 members of Concerned Carpinterians signed a petition urging a “no” vote on Farrar’s warehouse project. Residents said the smell of pot from both greenhouse operations is borne day and night into their homes on the prevailing winds.
“I’m finding it very hard to swallow that the CARP Growers are now touting this carbon scrubber system but haven’t been able to produce a reliable odor control program in the past,” Maureen Foley, Paul’s daughter, said on a recent weekday, as waves of “skunky” odor wafted into the family’s orchard from the direction of Cresco.
In addition to the smell, the appellants want the board also to consider the potential impacts of industrial-scale cannabis on Arroyo Paredon, a major creek, and on Foothill truck traffic and the electrical grid.
“The appeals process is a way for the public to have a voice,” Foley said. “It’s one of the few mechanisms where there’s an attempt at least at parity, in terms of balancing the voice of the appellant with the voice of the growers. And the projects have become better projects, as a result.”
A Johnny-come-lately leap of faith. CARP Growers is proud of what it has accomplished. What other industry sits down with its critics and works things out? they ask.
Although carbon filtration has been used for years in sealed buildings where cannabis is grown in other states, such as Colorado, the technologies being developed for the high-humidity, large-scale, open-vented greenhouses in the Carpinteria Valley are brand-new, and CARP Growers has helped to pioneer them.
The group says it has spent more than $50,000, testing multiple prototypes and settling finally on “regenerative” carbon scrubbers, a model developed by a Dutch firmed named Envinity Group. With 150 scrubbers, a $3 million investment, Ever-Bloom will be the site of the first large-scale test of this emerging technology.
By early January, growers say, the greenhouse industry will know how well these new scrubbers work. Cresco representatives told the Planning Commission last month that they have been shown to eliminate up to 87 percent of the smelly gases given off by marijuana plants in a greenhouse setting. The Dutch scrubbers use pre-filters and ultraviolet light to extend the life of the carbon filters: Envinity claims they will last five years.
The commissioners voted unanimously in favor of a permit for Cresco, with some reservations.
“We’re making a leap of faith for these scrubbers,” Commissioner Mike Cooney, whose district includes the Carpinteria Valley, said after the hearing. “We’re giving a permit now in September, and we have no assurance they will work.”
Roughly 10 Envinity scrubbers are estimated to be needed per acre of greenhouse cultivation. The cost to install scrubbers in every greenhouse in the valley could come to more than $30 million, and much of the burden would fall on CARP Growers.
Meanwhile, CVW Organic Farms on Cravens Lane, the first cannabis operation in the valley to commit to using scrubbers, has been using eight locally-designed units in a three-acre cannabis greenhouse for the past two months.
The scrubbers run at night, when the vents are nearly closed and the blackout curtains are in place. The “misting,” or vapor, system is turned on during the day, when the vents are open. A year ago, Cooney called this combination the “gold standard” for odor control.
The scrubbers and vapor systems at CVW were designed and engineered by Marc Byers, a Summerland resident who owns Byers Scientific, an industrial odor-management firm. Byers said there have been no odor complaints at CVW since his scrubbers were installed.
Cindy and David Van Wingerden, the owners of CVW Farms, are not members of CARP Growers; they negotiated an agreement with the coalition late last year, and the commission incorporated it into a zoning permit for 13 acres of cannabis.
Compared to the Envinity models, Byers said, his scrubbers, at $15,000 each, cost less, use less electricity and are American-made. The carbon cylinders last up to two years, he said, and, unlike the Envinity models, can be tested at any time. When they are used up, the carbon can be recycled.
“This Johnny-come-lately scrubber system from Holland is being pitched as a panacea; that’s maybe not true,” Byers said. “Our scrubber is the most energy-efficient scrubber there is on the market.”
The vapor systems. The pact does not mention the Byers vapor, or “misting,” systems that remain the frontline odor control technology in cannabis greenhouses throughout the valley.
These systems send up a curtain of non-toxic plant oils to neutralize the smell of pot, using perforated pipes that are attached to the exterior of the greenhouses. The growers like the system, but some residents say the mist smells like fabric softener and irritates their lungs.
“I have my serious doubts about the Byers (vapor) system, now that we’ve had it in place for a couple of years,” Cooney said at a Cresco hearing in August. “We were so desperate to abate the odor that we didn’t give sufficient weight to some downsides that have been pointed out by some members of the public and scientists, since.”
“At this point, I’m doubtful the Byers system is doing the job," Cooney added. "Byers may remain in place, but I hope it isn’t used one day longer than necessary.”
Spokesmen for both the coalition and CARP Growers say that they expect the vapor systems to be phased out as the scrubbers come online and show that they can work.
As a sign of things to come, Ed Van Wingerden is applying for a permit to operate exclusively with the Dutch scrubbers and without a Byers vapor system at Roadside Blooms, a four-acre greenhouse operation at 3684 Via Real.
“We want to listen to the community,” said Shelton, the CARP Growers president. “Based on testing, the Envinity scrubbers have shown the potential to be the best available control technology for the future. With those scrubbers, we would need to have only one type of odor system.”
But the trend has put Byers on the defensive; last month, he sent a “cease-and-desist” letter to Maureen Foley, after she sent out a press release characterizing his vapor system as an “unscientific” “mystery mist” technology. The contents of the mist are indeed confidential, but they have been reviewed by the county Air Pollution Control District and found to be non-toxic.
Byers said there are certain times of day when vapor systems will perform better than scrubbers.
“When the vents are wide open, the scrubbers start to lose their efficacy and the gases aren’t trapped as much anymore,” he said.
Original sin. In approving its cannabis ordinance in early 2018, the Board of Supervisors put the primary emphasis on developing “a robust and economically viable legal cannabis industry,” overriding the “significant and unavoidable” impacts from “objectionable odors” that were flagged in an environmental report.
Medicinal cannabis growers who signed affidavits, or sworn statements, verifying that they were operating before Jan. 19, 2016, were allowed to continue growing cannabis — and to expand their acreage — so long as they applied for zoning permits and business licenses.
“That was an error that is four years old, but it keeps returning the same negative results,” Cooney said. “If you don’t have a permit, you’re still allowed to grow.”
About half the cannabis projects in the valley, most of them owned by members of CARP growers, fall into that category; they have been designated as “legal, non-conforming” operations.
The commission — and the county Grand Jury — recommended last year that the board require more stringent zoning permits, called conditional use permits, for all cannabis cultivation and processing in the county; but the pro-cannabis majority of supervisors Williams, Gregg Hart and Steve Lavagnino wasn’t interested.
Among 181 cannabis projects countywide that have been approved for zoning permits to date, records show, only one has been denied. The county has never shut down a “grow” because of odor complaints. In a kind of Catch-22, county planners say they have no authority to require a remedy unless the grower has a zoning permit; and most growers don’t have their permits yet.
“We’re going to do the best we can to quiet the outrage among our citizens,” Cooney said. “I do think the growers’ agreeing to a common set of standards that’s higher than what’s been required up to now is a big advance.”
How Denver does things right. In the city and County of Denver, 324 properties are devoted to cannabis cultivation and processing: most of them are “grow” sites. Only two are open-vented greenhouses, and the rest are in warehouses. There have been two odor complaints so far this year; last year, there were none.
Tim Allen, a Denver environmental public health investigator, inspects the sites once a year and every time a site is modified; and he also responds to odor complaints. Using his nose, Allen ranks the “grows”: a ranking of 1 to 3 is a “common odor” and 7 to 10 is a “significantly bad odor.” Growers at the higher end of the scale must hire an industrial hygienist to fix the problem.
The cannabis sites with the best odor control, Allen said, are warehouses that are divided up into, say, 50 small, sealed “grow” rooms, each with a small “can” carbon filter. The remaining warehouse space is equipped with filters, too.
“That is the absolute best practice you can employ,” Allen said. “If I were advising someone what to do, I would not advise them to go into a greenhouse in the first place.”
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: Cannabis bud ; Paul Ekstrom; County Map shows location of cannabis applications in Carpinteria; Maureen Foley; Mike Cooney; Mark Byers (Burns)