County steps up enforcement on codes

When the land use and permitting codes of the county’s cannabis ordinance were hotly debated last spring, many folks in the San Lorenzo Valley expressed real doubt about the county’s ability to enforce those codes in the more remote, hide-away places tucked away from view in the mountains surrounding the valley.   

The environmental degradation caused by many illegal marijuana grows in the area, including clear-cutting trees, water theft and diverting stream flows, were well documented. Several residents criticized the county’s record of enforcing regular building, planning and nuisance codes in the mountains, and cited this record as reason enough to worry that illegal grows, and the environmental damage they cause, were likely to increase in the new era of legally permitted cultivation of cannabis. 

A status report from the county’s Cannabis Licensing Program submitted for the Board of Supervisor’s meeting of August 28 highlighted “enhanced enforcement action” that may put some of these concerns to rest.  

The county’s Cannabis Licensing Office, responsible for local licensing of cannabis growers, manufacturers and retail outlets as well as enforcing the new codes, has been recently beefed up with the addition of two, full-time sheriff deputies. The office has taken a “pro-active” approach to enforcing the codes for cannabis, which typically was not the case with other types of code enforcement.

“The folks playing by the rules shouldn’t have anything to worry about, but those that aren’t should be worried. We want to get rid of the black market,” said Robin Bolster-Grant, manager of the county’s Cannabis Licensing Office.  “Our goal is bringing the industry into compliance and building trust with the community. We’re out looking for serious environmental violations, and in those cases, we’re willing to refer the violations to the District Attorney.”

But according to Pat Malo, executive director of Green Trade, one of the leading business associations for the newly legal cannabis industry in Santa Cruz County, there seems to be a bit of catch up for growers to be complaint.

“That line between legal and not legal, compliance and non-compliance has been shifting around quite-a-bit, until just recently when the final codes were finally adopted,” said Malo.

Malo explained that many growers who have been trying to “play by the rules” have run into significant difficulties meeting the requirements of the new codes, and could use more assistance from the county’s licensing office getting through the permitting process rather than the threat of enhanced enforcement.

“That’s not to say that code enforcement shouldn’t be focused on environmental crimes--mountain growers struggling to meet the code and pre-application requirements are the first to condemn the environmental damage caused by black market growers,” Malo added.      

The status report stated that, “using aerial photo imagery, civilian complaints, and referrals from partner agencies” the Cannabis Licensing Office (CLO) received and responded to 49 potential violations, 20 of which were resolved. After receiving a “strongly worded letter” about the consequences of continuing an unpermited grow, 13 of the violations resulted in growers removing the plants, and one removing a small manufacturing operation.

Part of the difficulties with “enhanced enforcement” is that about half of the “potential violations” were against growers who have registered with the county as potential licensees--growers who are either preparing the documentation required for the CLO’s pre-application process, looking to re-locate to a compliant site, or struggling to meet the code’s requirements

In response to a complaint against a grower who is registered as a potential licensee, the CLO issued a deadline to submit the pre-application materials to begin the permitting process, “generally 30 to 60 days depending on the scope of the commercial cannabis business,” according to the CLO’s status report.

The CLO’s pre-application process, beginning with a $1,500 fee, is a rigorous process of reviewing appropriate zoning, site plans, potential biotic and environmental constraints of the site, and preliminary fire suppression requirements. If basic eligibility requirements are met, the applicant is given “Canna-Clearance” to proceed to “Phase Two” of the licensing process- the application for a use permit from the County Planning Department, which typically requires a public hearing by the Zoning Administrator.  

Prior to the official implementation of the new county codes beginning on June 8, about 110 “temporary permit letters” were issued to cannabis growers, who were mostly growing for medical marijuana dispensaries, and about another 100 were “registered” with the county as potential licensees. Of those, about 19 have completed pre-application consultations, and only about three have advanced to the Canna-Clearance stage, now under review by the planning department for a formal use permit.   

In response to a question about the CLO’s “pro-active” code enforcement by First District Supervisor John Leopold, inquiring about the difference between the normal “complaint-driven” nature of code enforcement and the CLO actively seeking out violators, Bolster-Grant responded that neighbors being fearful of retribution for a complaint about a suspected illegal grow operation has always been a factor with the new cannabis codes, and that enforcement does require a pro-active, “enhanced” enforcement program.

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