Cannabis regulations in North County

Recommendation from Planning Commission will influence Board of Supervisors

SAN LUIS OBISPO — The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission will need to continue a meeting that took place Aug. 10 to make a final decision regarding the regulation of cannabis activities in San Luis Obispo County. The discussion was held by the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission to provide a ‘think tank’ on a County study on inland and coastal zone cannabis distribution and dispensaries, with amendments to land use ordinance of the county code, including a cap on the number of cultivations sites, and new standards including (but not limited to) setbacks, odor control, screening, water offsetting and security. The Planning Commission had many questions for County Planner Brandi Cummings, who presented the study to the Commission, and the meeting was well attended by approximately 50 people, many of whom spoke up on the pros and cons of limitations during the public comment period.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation will go to the Board of Supervisors for a vote on Oct. 3, but it was decided to continue the meeting on Sept. 14, so that the Planning Commission could have more time to think on the complex consequences of the proposed suggestions before making a final proposal.  

With last year’s passing of Prop. 64, making marijuana legal in California, North County, like many counties in the state, are facing new challenges in the management of cannabis. Because of little data available, planners and supervisors are entering brand new territory.

North County presently has 83 cannabis grows approved out of 89 applications for approval, and 191 out of 291 cannabis grows were approved in the Carrizo Planning area, which includes the California Valley.

Now the Planning Commission is considering prohibiting the Carrizo Planning area for cannabis operations, and County staff has made a recommendation to limit the total number of cannabis cultivation operations to 100 within the County at one time, based on the total number of available parcels in land use categories allowing cannabis cultivation.

The number of ‘100’ was discussed in two ways by the commission and public speakers: as a starting point, or bookmark, that could be increased or decreased as the marijuana industry grows and changes. The number was also discussed as an unnecessary number, especially for those in favor of unrestricted marijuana grows.

As per the County report, permits would be distributed to the five regions of the county by size of available land. North County would be administered 59 of the 100 permits; South County, 25; Coastal, 13; San Luis Obispo, five; and Carrizo would be prohibited.

The Planning Commission asked many questions on the County staff recommendations, wondering how North County will handle the water issues associated with new marijuana grows. There were quite a few questions regarding setbacks, caregiver exemptions, tax protocols, odor enforcement, agricultural crop categories, rental properties, the cash dilemma, fencing and security. The comments ranged from protecting cannabis access for people medical conditions to the comparison of water usage: vineyards vs pot farms. Most of the public was saying marijuana grow site water usage is much less than vineyards. Some marijuana growers in Carrizo expressed the benign nature of their farms.

Sean Donahoe, Policy Advisor, Local Government and Electoral Politics for the California Growers Association said, “I know of no other county-based entity throughout the state of California that is limiting permits by quantity...For those hundred sites, if some number shall be determined, how will they be selected? County proposals are mute as to that point. Obviously a merit-based system would be superior to a lottery.”

Donahoe suggested a “phasing in process” and the use of track and trace of incorporating “appellations” into their county-wide monitoring system, a protocol that has been used in Mendocino County.

A citrus and marijuana farmer, Cal Poly Agriculture graduate and San Luis Obispo county resident for 20 years, expressed his frustration with the process of modifying the staff  recommendations for cannabis cultivation. He said he’s been attending the meetings, but feels like the public comments were falling on “deaf ears.”

“None of the changes are being included in the modifications,” the farmer said, adding he was tired of hearing different answers from the Commission. “We’ve been hearing over and over again that people don’t agree with a cap limit.”

“I ask you to really consider protecting the rights of medical cannabis patients and not just entertaining the commercial aspect of medical cannabis...Certain people grow thousands of plants and other people are only able to grow six plants. That’s definitely not fair,” he said.

One Nipomo resident talked about how he wanted regulation, since he’s seen the effect of the debris leftover from illegal grows. He also suggested a study should be conducted on the number of gallons of water each grow takes to produce marijuana.

But the crux of the public comments dealt with the most difficult policy question of the meeting: Should there be a limitation on cannabis grows in the county?

The Planning Commission gave the amendments a thorough examination, with Jim Harrison and Jay Brown leaning toward the 100 limit on cannabis grows; Don Campbell and Michael Multari seeing both sides of regulations; and Julie Hawkins against marijuana regulations entirely.

“On the one hand this is something new to us. We don’t really know,” said Commissioner Multari. “How is this going to work out? There is, a fundamental difference, at least in my mind, between this crop and other crops that we do, and the fact is that when it comes out of the ground, it’s valuable at that time, and it could be very valuable, so the notion of security and the need to have protections are different from growing cauliflower. You can steal a cauliflower, so what? You start to steal marijuana plants – those have some real value in my mind,” he said.

Commissioner Jay Brown said, “It is a new phenomenon. There’s a huge implied social potential problems that come down the path if we want just go unlimited on this. So I think the idea of metering it, obviously, as this experience grows, the systems can change, but to have it unlimited at the get-go, to me seems not appropriate for now.”

President of the Planning Commission, Don Campbell, spoke on North County. He noticed the allocated numbers were quite large compared to other areas of the county. He said both he and Commissioner Brown live in areas with many rural/residential people he’s personally seen marijuana grows “build up.”

“I would imagine there are an awful lot of people on five acres or ten acres that may not want to have a marijuana plot growing in between their places,” said Campbell. Commissioner Jim Harrison mentioned his daughter was concerned about her children not being able to decipher between pot products and candy as marijuana dispensaries and farms become normalized in the community.

Commissioner Julie Hawkins may have not been as vocal as Multari or Campbell and the rest of the Commission, but she expressed her desire for no limitations what-so-ever on the number of grows in the county. She had issues with the language of the proposed recommendations, like the ‘detectable odors’ part of the draft. She mentioned laundry detergents and coffee making as being just as fragrant as the odors from pot growing. She made a pun about marijuana being a ‘budding’ industry. But she was very serious when she said she was concerned with picking ‘100’ as the capped amount of marijuana grows without more research.

Many of the Commission’s questions could not be answered simply because cannabis had been illegal until now, and even with the top experts in the field of engineering, farming, and urban planning to help them understand the issues involved in the legalization of marijuana on the Central Coast, the Commission may have no other choice but to gather as much data as they can, and let the new crop grow as it may.

For questions and/or feedback, please contact Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected].


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