Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

What started as a report to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors from the cannabis working group Tuesday turned into back and forth, ending with microphones being shut off before a five-minute recess.

The board’s cannabis working group meets regularly to craft ordinances for regulating commercial cannabis in Del Norte County. The county currently has a ban in place on commercial cannabis, but plans to repeal the ban and replace it later with the ordinances, once approved by supervisors.

Group Vice Chairman Jesse Davis, who also recently filed a recall petition against Supervisors Roger Gitlin and Bob Berkowitz, gave the report. He said two members of the working group were unable to attend the last meeting and therefore, the group held only discussion about manufacturing, zoning and size limitations.

He said the group heard some good public comment about how to keep cannabis businesses small but competitive, and a desire to rezone Timberland Production Zone areas for cannabis.

In response to a question from Chair Chris Howard about state input, county legal counsel Joel Campbell-Blair weighed in, saying the California Coastal Commission typically requires commercial use in the coastal zone occur inside existing structures to prevent new construction.

“It’s worth reopening that discussion,” Campbell-Blair said. “If the board doesn’t want to see it there and isn’t interested in that, then the working group probably shouldn’t waste its time. If the board does want to reopen those things, there may be some room for movement that we didn’t anticipate.”

“I don’t necessarily want to see the county opening up its Local Coastal Plan if we don’t have to, but at the same time, it sounds like the working group is steering more toward the hills and the TPZ zoned lands as a potential for growing, and not looking at the bottomlands.”

Davis said cannabis production typically requires a small amount of space and would not displace other agriculture in the area, and is well-suited for unused greenhouse buildings in the county.

“I’d also like to encourage the public to send input to the board,” he said, noting that it can then be relayed to the working group.

Davis said the Del Norte Grower’s Association is eager to work with local and state law enforcement regarding misuse of public lands.

Confusing input

Later speaking under public comment as a member of the public, Davis disclosed the working group has been partly calculative in forming ordinances it feels supervisors will pass.

“Personally I feel the group has had consistent support, really from only three of the board members,” Davis said, noting the group was created with the unanimous support of the board. “From my observations, Supervisor Gitlin is unable to participate at any level on policy creation other than a ban. That’s unfortunate for our group. It would be nice to have some input from your viewpoint and from your constituents, that we can work into the ordinances.”

“Mr. Berkowitz has given the most significantly confusing input of any board member,” Davis said, noting a statement by Berkowitz that Berkowitz has been disappointed for quite some time with the direction of the working group.

“But you didn’t specify which direction you were unhappy with.” Davis said, asking Berkowitz to clarify and give specifics of why he is unhappy.

“Otherwise, we can do nothing,” Davis said. “We have to basically just ignore your input and we don’t want to do that.”

Berkowitz responded, saying he wanted to see specific recommendations and positive direction toward sequential ordinances, so the board isn’t facing several at year’s end.

Davis asked for consistency in board direction, saying he felt Berkowitz’s comments about being disappointed were intentionally made to be unclear.

“What I’m looking for is something that will come before this board,” Berkowitz responded. “You’re looking for direction from the board to you and I don’t think you’re going to get that. I don’t think you’ve gotten it. In absence of that, I think you are going to have to come to the board with the kinds of things you think the board will support.”

Davis said such recommendations to the board can take several meetings to formulate and the cultivation discussion may take several meetings to sort out. He said the group is working to finalize direction in other areas.

“I’d say we’re making excellent progress,” Davis said. “The group is unified. We have very little problem finding consensus when we’re ready to do so.”

Campbell-Blair noted a retail ordinance has been drafted and details were to be hashed out with the Community Development Department on Thursday. The planning commission will also see it and loosely estimated that it may come before the board for consideration in a month.

Supervisor Lori Cowan said that with personal, tax and retail ordinances from the group in six months, timing has been satisfactory.

Regarding agricultural land, Cowan said she’d always hoped cannabis would stay out of it.

“I just don’t envision pot farms as we’re driving down U.S. 101 to replace the lilies,” she said, “so that’s just my input. In what I’ve been learning... I just assumed it would be up farther north and not so much down in the coastal areas.” She said she has never wanted to see tall fences around outdoor grows but may feel differently about growing inside existing buildings.

Public comment

Paulette Young said she felt formation of the working group was misleading, and those who voted for Prop 64 did not understand commercial cannabis was part of the bargain. She said a lot of people don’t want cannabis and said teens can become addicted to it.

“Marijuana’s not a good thing, it’s not a good product,” she said. “I wish you would get smart and keep the ban that’s in place.”

Group member Robert Derego said he looks at cannabis as a positive product and said its commercialization can help the county overall. He said while he considers himself addicted to it, and talks to his kids about it, he wants people to accept him as a decent member of his community.

Aaron Skroback noted a majority of voters approved Prop 64.

“We are watching this,” he said. “We are observing everything that is going on and, as you know, we will make this public and there is no hiding from anything that is going on in this county. We continue to support the working group and hopefully, the ordinance will come out in a timely manner and be to the majority of people’s liking.”

Gitlin responded, saying “If I’ve confused you, let me unconfuse you,” as to his consistent opposition to cannabis, which he feels will be problematic for the county.

Gitlin said while he did vote in favor of creating the cannabis working group, he did so at a time when Blake Alexandre, a vocal opponent of cannabis, had been assigned to the group.

“He’s AWOL,” said Gitlin of Alexandre, “I haven’t seen or heard from him, I think he’s thrown in the towel.”

Gitlin said he feels the group is unbalanced when all members see things the same way.

Gitlin then questioned Davis’ objectivity in the process, starting back-and-forth remarks when he called Davis “a grower.”

When order was restored, Gitlin said cannabis will cause problems for the county and pledged to continue in his opposition to it.

Responding to Derego’s comments, Gitlin said he disagrees with the notion cannabis is a good product, asserting that it can do a lot of harm to the community. Responding to Derego’s comment that his own children may try it “much like somebody tries champagne,” Gitlin said champagne and marijuana are different, considering one is banned by the federal government.

“I hope I’ve made myself clear on my opposition to this product today, tomorrow and forever,” Gitlin said.

Howard apologized for Gitlin’s comments, saying “I’m sorry members of the public have to go through some retaliation, so to speak, from individual supervisors. It shouldn’t happen from this dias.”

Howard said the board operates under a code of ethics, which says the board must come to a position of having an unbiased approach to the public.

“We don’t take a stand on either side,” he said. “We can kinda let our positions be known, but when we haven’t even made a decision yet, as a board, specifically on one item, whether it’s an ordinance or a new policy, the public needs to know that we have an open mind when were approaching these issues, and in this case in particular, at least what we’re seeing now is a closed mind. That can either be a good thing or a bad thing, but right now, as we operate under AB1234, it’s considered a bad thing.” Howard said the position sets the county up for liability and said the board will continue to support the working group and work together to create ordinances.

However, the topic ended with a five-minute recess after Gitlin demanded a retort, and the two continued to talk over each other.

In the audience, members of the public called the episodes embarrassing and childish as they filed out of the board chambers.