Editor’s note: Due to a computer problem, this story about the June 6 Board of Supervisors’ meeting was not published earlier.
UKIAH, 6/09/2017 -- During an abbreviated public comment period at the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors meeting on June 6, local food producers spoke about their fears that new cannabis regulations could make small scale food production more difficult and expensive. Cannabis growers also complained of heavy fees and continuing uncertainties.
Several members of the public arrived at the meeting early to fill out speaker cards and address the board about cannabis regulations, an item that was not on the agenda. Ordinarily, public comment on non-agendized topics is limited to ten minutes each, but Second District Supervisor John McCowen, who is the current board chair, allotted a little over seven minutes to the related topics of cannabis and food production.
McCowen explained that his decision was “a bit arbitrary,” but that he had decided to call on the first two speakers,”and then two individuals that I know have been pretty steadfast in attending these meetings.” He then selected Ron Edwards and Paul Hansberry as the two stalwart representatives of cannabis interests. McCowen also permitted a cannabis farmer named Michael Bailey to speak of his concern that he was not protected from raids, in spite of paying hefty fees to grow cannabis legally. Bailey asked the board to craft “some kind of line between me and the sheriff,” though he noted that “I know the board is not the sheriff and does not control him.”
Other farmers also spoke of uncertainties stemming from the current cannabis regulatory climate. Ruthie King, who is involved with several small farmers’ organizations, including the School of Adaptive Agriculture, spoke specifically about new regulations on hoop houses and greenhouses. She told the board she was accompanied by farmers who feared they could be put out of business if regulations crafted for cannabis cultivators were applied to them.
A hoop house is a temporary structure, often made of PVC pipe and covered with an easily removed material that extends the growing season by intensifying sunlight and protecting crops from cold weather. Plants are usually grown directly in the ground within the structure. A new Planning and Building Services procedure, dated April 13, details which of these structures are now subject to a building permit. The new policy lays out twelve conditions under which hoop houses or shade structures may operate without a building permit. Hoop houses in the coastal zone are subject to a coastal development permit, and all are subject to review by CalFire and local fire departments.
King and others, who submitted written remarks to the board, were especially concerned about size requirements. For the temporary structures to operate without a building permit, they must be under 1,000 square feet, with a maximum height of twelve feet and a maximum width of 20 feet. They must have a 100 foot setback from property lines, and they may not be used for any commercial activity. The policy applies to agricultural and ornamental crops as well as cannabis. King requested an exemption for small food producers. She feared that if large hoop houses were subject to the new permitting demands of greenhouses, many small food producers would go out of business.
In a letter to the board, a man named Mike Adams, who described himself as a “small scale food and cannabis grower,” stated a similar concern, citing the requirements that greenhouses used for cannabis cultivation must be equipped with bathrooms and parking spaces that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “Although this regulation may seem fair to some,” he wrote, “if applied to non-cannabis agriculture--and I imagine it’s only a matter of time until it would--many of Mendocino’s small food producers would be facing compliance obstacles that would make it too costly to continue farming.”
Adams was not alone in his dubiousness that cannabis regulations would continue to be confined to cannabis cultivation. In an interview outside the Board of Supervisors chambers, Liam UiCerbhaill, of the Little Lake Grange’s “Grange Grains” program, outlined some of his concerns about the strict requirements for greenhouses. “Though the county has stated that this will be for cannabis only, there is nothing in the regulation that says that,” he said. “We are concerned that this regulation would seriously impact small food producers.” Some of the hoop houses were funded by a grant from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). UiCerbhaill reported that some of these USDA-funded hoop houses “are large enough to now be required to meet greenhouse regulations, which requires ADA access...which doesn’t make sense,” he concluded.
Members of the public who wished to comment more directly on cannabis were also concerned with the high cost and uncertainties of doing business. A man named James Maddock submitted a letter to the board complaining that “The ordinance is overly complicated...The fees are too high. The tax is too high...If I wanted to plant 5,000 square feet of corn I wouldn’t need to do anything but tend the crop.” He also worried that applicants to the county’s program may be exposing themselves to federal law enforcement.
Hansberry, a frequent commenter at government meetings regarding cannabis, shared a color-coded spreadsheet detailing what he had calculated as approximately $40,000 in fees, taxes, and compliance costs of doing business in the cannabis industry. These included state and local taxes, permitting requirements, and inspection costs. He told the board that he expects the costs to continue rising, especially since CalOSHA (California Occupational Safety and Health Administration) “is about to weigh in with their regulations. I know everybody wants their piece of the pie,” he acknowledged. “But my experience with CalOSHA is that they’re going to want their piece a la mode.”
Sarah Reith [email protected]