Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

The chairman of Del Norte County’s Cannabis Working Group told supervisors Tuesday while the group has been given little direction, it’s making progress at developing ordinances to regulate legal cannabis growing in the county.

The discussion by Chair Jessie Davis was the first report from the working group and follows a Jan. 23 board meeting where a temporary county ban on commercial cannabis was allowed to expire, falling short of the needed 4/5 vote. Supervisors Bob Berkowitz and Roger Gitlin voted against extending the ban, which was in place to allow the group and legal counsel time to craft an ordinance for regulating cannabis in the county.

Staff reports said the expiration allows the state to issue permits for commercial cannabis activity in all zones throughout Del Norte County.

Berkowitz and Supervisor Lori Cowan were in Japan and not able to attend the meeting last Tuesday.

Davis opened by saying something he’d wanted to say at the Jan. 23 meeting, which was “the board didn’t have a lot to say.” Davis said he’d gone back through previous cannabis workshop videos online and said he found that the board was not able to give clear direction to county counsel about what type of ordinance it wanted to have written.

“I think that was the reason the idea of forming a working group came about,” Davis said, “because the board wasn’t able to produce direction.”

Davis said the group is currently trying to determine what the public wants in an ordinance, to bring that information to the board.

Davis read from reports he wrote following working group sessions, noting early meetings involved getting to know each other and learn about the relevant laws.

The first meeting focused on the regulation of personal cultivation.

“We’re working on a tiered system where the size of the garden must be appropriate for the size of a given property and the setbacks that must be observed,” he said. “In our discussions we agreed that there must be consensus in order to offer meaningful recommendations to the board.”

He said in early meetings the working group was uncertain if it was to be discussing a complete ban, or the scale of personal and commercial regulation.

Group results

“It was really totally open since there was very little direction from the board,” he said.

Davis said at a Jan. 3 meeting, the group made progress toward crafting a personal cultivation outline. The group agreed square footage of growing would be determined by plant canopy and that all grows must comply with the state rules:

“Plants must not be visible by normal, unaided vision from a public space, plants are in a locked space and the county will further define ‘locked,’ plants must be inside a private residence or accessory structure or upon the grounds of the residence,” Davis said. “This means no growing on property with no residence, i.e: out in the woods.”

He said a county rule would be all personal gardens must be closer to one’s house than to their neighbors’ houses.

“The tiers apply to all residences in all zoning districts and landlords retain the right to restrict cultivation through traditional lease agreements and would not be part of county code,” he read to supervisors. “Tier one is a maximum of 25 square feet of canopy with a minimum setback of 10 feet from property lines. These plants must be in containers with the idea that they are removable, if needed. The maximum total plant height is 6 feet.”

Tier two would have a maximum canopy of 100 square feet, with a minimum setback of 40 feet and would have no height or container restrictions. Tier three would have a maximum canopy of 300 square feet, a minimum setback of 60 feet, with no height or container restrictions.

Davis discussed prospective indoor cultivation regulations, saying indoor and outdoor cultivation could be allowed concurrently.

“This outline is the result of balancing ease of enforcement with avoidance of nuisance creation and lawsuits,” he said, “while allowing the greatest individual freedom possible.”

Davis said canopy limits were considered sufficient to produce reasonable amounts of cannabis for personal or recreational use, while limiting the diversion of cannabis to illegal markets.

Davis said at subsequent meetings, the group was to look into commercial retail sales and the regulation of existing collectives seeking state licenses for larger amounts. He said ordinances could take the rest of the year to complete but would serve as a temporary regulator of “operations that have no intention of compliance in 2018.”

He said the last group meeting, which followed the Jan. 23 supervisors meeting, threw the group a bit off-track and group members went over cultivation outlines with others who were not present when it was created. Permitting of existing retail was also discussed. He said a Feb. 15 meeting agenda included taxation and retail ordinance creation.

In hindsight

Board Chair Chris Howard said it was clear the board wasn’t doing enough to have the community involved in a process.

“We need to communicate better,” he told Davis. “I think, going forward, if you are willing to, we’ll have you as a standing agenda item at every meeting. The efforts of the working group, by essentially volunteers, was to help us and the planning commission in developing what will be a very complex set of ordinances for our community.”

Howard said his hope is communication and public awareness can be improved going forward.

“I personally think the working group is a huge success,” Davis responded. “I’m looking at how other cities and counties are doing it, including Crescent City...We’re one of the only I’ve seen that have this level of public involvement. Humboldt’s ordinance is really terrible because they didn’t include much of the public.”

Davis said Humboldt’s supervisors were advised by wealthy growers and investor groups who wrote an ordinance in advance. Davis looked forward to the completion of a local ordinance saying it will succeed because it has received input from the entire community.

Davis said about 40 of the 58 California counties currently have bans in place.

“I believe most of those 40 aren’t really doing anything, so if you look at it in terms of ranking, we’re further ahead than other cities and counties,” he said.

He said while many counties seem to want to avoid the issue, Del Norte, Trinity and Humboldt counties cannot.

“It’s just individual demographics,” he said, adding differences between county ordinances have been problematic.

Direction defined

Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen asked Davis what direction he would have liked from the board.

“What is it that we missed out on that we should have said?” he asked.

“I didn’t get the sense that we were looking for direction from the board,” Davis replied. “The point of creating the group was to create some direction where there wasn’t any.”

Davis said every member of the group contributes to the process in a positive way and that only two, two-hour meetings were needed to determine how it would proceed.

“I suppose there could have been more discussion from the board about it,” Davis said, noting initial feedback and questions would have helped the process for the working group.

“I took all that to mean the board wasn’t interested because it wanted to let the working group operate independent of what the board was saying and I genuinely believed that,” Davis said, “and I believe everyone in the working group believed that.”

After further discussion about refining communication and general concerns such as water use, odor control and retail, Davis said he feels the group should continue in its current format of investigating issues for presentation to the board for consideration.

Gitlin asserted that he is the only supervisor who has clearly expressed his feelings on the issue of cannabis.

“I have, and continue to be opposed to the cultivation and retail of this product in Del Norte County,” Gitlin said. “I don’t think I need to hear any additional information.”

He instructed Davis to provide future direction on personal cultivation and medical marijuana options.

Gitlin said he has asked for a single sentence ordinance banning commercial and recreational cannabis in the county to be placed on the next board agenda.

Gitlin said he and Berkowitz should not have been condemned for “saying this is what I have decided to do, after 45 days of thinking about it.”

Gitlin said another issue looms but has yet to be discussed.

“This is against federal law,” Gitlin said. “Any of this discussion we are having now about marijuana violates federal law.”

Saying he feels he represents a large segment of the community, Gitlin said he agrees with the 40 mentioned counties that feel cannabis will be problematic in the future.

Public comment

Resident Linda Sutter reminded that all supervisor districts voted to legalize marijuana.

Kevin Hendrick, chair of the Del Norte County Democratic Party, echoed, saying more than 59 percent of voters wanted legalization, and questioned why Gitlin vote against continuing a ban on cannabis while saying he opposed cannabis production and sales. He suggested using a ban for some time to come up with a comprehensive ordinance, to allow what was voted for to occur. He said the action of the last meeting “created a state of lawlessness,” by allowing the previous interim ban to expire.

“How does that meet your goal of not having growers or retail?” he asked Gitlin, “because now, they don’t have to have your permission.”

Hendrick also questioned what would happen to state-permitted growers in the county, should a local ordinance be passed in the future.

“The polite people say those are realistic issues,” Hendrick said. “The realistic people say those are lawsuits.”

Hendrick said the decision to vote against the ban “reeks of politics.”

Howard thanked the working group for its work and said the next board agenda will address the “dilemma.”

Videos of the Cannabis Working Group meetings are now online at the County of Del Norte YouTube page.

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