In just two weeks, zoning permits for outdoor cannabis are likely to hit the 1,575-acre limit set by the county board for unincorporated areas outside of Carpinteria Valley – if the growers with permits are able to do their business get licenses, say the authorities.
That leaves 1,560 acres, mostly in North County, which has been proposed for cannabis cultivation, which the county is reviewing and which does not meet the cap. These projects can be cleared for permits, county planning and development director Lisa Plowman told the board on Tuesday. But, she said, applicants will not receive their business licenses or be allowed to operate unless a grower who qualifies for a license below the cap does not receive one or allows it to expire.
As a sign of a dramatic change from previous policy, the board voted 3-2 on Tuesday to instruct planners to draft an amendment to the cannabis regulation that would require a more stringent permit, a so-called conditional use permit, for any outdoor cannabis operation that did so doesnt make the cap. The change would apply to all unincorporated areas, with the exception of Carpinteria Valley, where the board has set a limit of 186 hectares for cannabis in greenhouses.
Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who oversees most of the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally designated American wine region west of Buellton, proposed the change. In recent years, the county has approved 350 hectares of cannabis in Sta. Rita Hills has provoked three lawsuits and led to bitter conflicts with winemakers and residents of Buellton. Cannabis critics have long complained about the smell of cannabis wafting into their neighborhoods and wine tasting rooms at harvest time. Winemakers fear that the smelly gases released by cannabis could harm their grapes, and there have been arguments about potential pesticides “drifting” from grapes.
Applications for an additional 250 hectares of cannabis are in preparation and will be submitted to the Sta. Rita Hills, County Reports Show. On Tuesday, Hartmann expressed the possibility that the cap on cannabis cultivation could be lifted in the future, although she says she “absolutely” does not support such a measure.
Under existing licensing regulations, most outdoor cannabis growers cannot be required to install odor control technology, reduce the size of their operations, or provide large buffers from neighboring farms and homes.
“If we look at the Santa Rita Hills, the die is pretty much cast,” said Hartmann.
For conditional usage permits, future cannabis projects would have to be “compatible” and “not harmful” to the surrounding neighborhoods. In this way, says Hartmann, the district could need the latest innovations in odor control for all of these projects.
“Our current standards could look pretty out of date in the future if we open that cap,” she said.
Chairman of the Board of Directors, Bob Nelson of Orcutt, who is part of Sta. Rita Hills agreed with Hartmann, as did Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the south coast from eastern Santa Barbara to the Carpinteria Valley. Williams said, “I agree that we shouldn’t go over the limit; it’s too early for that. “
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Supervisor Steve Lavagnino of the Santa Maria Valley and Supervisor Gregg Hart, who represents western Santa Barbara and the Goleta Valley, declined to require general conditional permits for outdoor cannabis, saying they had no intention of using the acreage in the first place to cancel. Hart said the cap was “the smartest thing we’ve ever done”.
“I don’t see why we’re talking about lifting the cap,” he said. “This is terrible news.”
Last year, the majority of the board of directors of Hart, Lavagnino and Williams voted against a motion from Hartmann that would have required conditional usage permits for cannabis cultivation and processing throughout the county. Regardless of this, they also voted against their request for such permits for the Sta. The Rita Hills wine region alone.
The district grand jury; County farm office; Santa Barbara winemaker; Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis; Worried Carpinterians; the cities of Buellton, Goleta and Carpinteria; and a number of homeowners’ associations last year called on the board to require conditional use permits for cannabis projects to contain an industry they viewed as disruptive and out of control.
“My office has been committed to it for a long time,” said Hartmann after the hearing. “We want to have the opportunity to apply what we have learned to future permits.
Marc Chytilo, a coalition attorney, said the group had “asked for conditional use permits because they give the county much greater control over cannabis projects.” And the acreage cap, he said, is “the third rail in the Santa Barbara County’s cannabis licensing process, a key element that constrains the size of the industry here.”
“The unanimous approval of the board signals that the cap will remain in place,” he said.
Williams said he voted for conditional use this time because he and Hartmann were unable to set a cap on cannabis per package in the Sta. Rita Hills, and because in North County “farmers don’t always work with the Planning Commission to change projects.” Finally, Williams said, “I want to discourage applications that go way above the limit.”
It will take six months to work out the regulation change and go through public hearings, Plowman said.
In two separate board hearings on Tuesday, a handful of growers and their agents urged overseers to lift the 1,575 hectare limit. A lawyer suggested recalculating it based on the actual canopy of the marijuana plants, rather than the total area covered by tire houses. Several breeders said the cap could hurt the county because if the interstate cannabis trade is legalized, the current cannabis glut would quickly be a thing of the past. Still others said they were embroiled in the lengthy approval process just to see their clock tick off.
Among the petitioners were Jay Pretto and Eric Lightman, who said they have been trying since 2019 to obtain conditional use permits for a five-acre “cultivation” near Lompoc.
“We’ve seen other projects get off the ground and as we get closer to the border it looks like we’re going to be left stranded,” said Lightman. “I urge you to consider small businesses like us. … Give us the opportunity to come out with an operational company on the other end. “
Nick Welsh of the Santa Barbara Independent contributed to this report.
Melinda Burns is a volunteer freelance journalist in Santa Barbara for a community service; It offers its news reports to several local publications at the same time free of charge.
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