No new joints: Santa Cruz County provisionally halts cannabis permits

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 Public speakers got into the weeds of the connotations and effects of the marijuana industry before the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors elected to institute a temporary emergency moratorium Tuesday.

As initially highlighted at the supervisors’ Aug. 24 meeting, residents in Supervisors Friend’s and Greg Caput’s districts have been voicing concerns around conflicts between residentially-zoned parcels and nearby Commercial Agriculture parcels. The timing of the majority of complaints coming in between the last six to eight months, Friend said, was due to the county’s permitting process.

With a friendly amendment from Supervisor Manu Koenig to ease the required buffer, his colleague Zach Friend led a motion that passed 4-1 to halt at least until Oct. 19 all new cannabis licenses for operations on parcels zoned Commercial Agriculture that are adjacent to or within 500 feet of a residence.

Supervisor Ryan Coonerty dissented due to feelings that it would be a “wholesale change in cannabis policy” when he expected an iteration that would improve conditions for folks in Corralitos. Prior to its amendment, Friend’s motion would have potentially impacted 24 total licensees and eliminated half of all eligible parcels for cultivation.

“People have invested a lot of time and tried to play by the rules that we created. This is just too big a leap (when) we tried to finally bring some continuity and security to this process,” Coonerty said. “We have put a lot of conditions on cannabis cultivators with the idea of reducing impacts on the environment and neighborhoods and creating a stable industry… this seems like an overcorrection.”

After studying options following complaints from neighbors to some of the Commercial Agriculture areas, largely focused in south county, the moratorium will be brought back to the electoral body for discussion.

‘Class warfare’

Residents of these neighborhoods spoke primarily over the phone about the potential smell and public safety issues that could be caused by individuals cultivating cannabis in the area of their homes. While they expected agricultural growth near them, cultivating pot is not the same, they argue.

“No other legal farming crop on the Central Coast has to conform with restrictions around odor control, lighting and rigid security. There are no eight-foot fences and security around strawberry fields,” county resident and ordinance supporter Michael Balch said. “Don’t make the same mistakes being made in Southern California, where cannabis farms are allowed in close proximity with residential neighborhoods, schools and parks — all of which exist in our neighborhood.”

But growers, many of whom said as they stood in front of supervisors that they had been living and working in the area for decades, felt as though they were being unfairly targeted by both comments from nearby property owners and language in the proposed ordinance. A few mentioned being pushed out of a favored zoning area in previous board decision making, from rolling hills into the Commercial Agriculture flat land that is often poisoned by toxins cannabis cultivators can’t have in their fields or under greenhouses such as pesticides, fungicides or heavy metals.

Not only does cannabis bring money into Santa Cruz County, providing further opportunity for recruitment of locals who need work, but it allows for cannabis businesses to contribute approximately 50% of the state’s Senate Bill 34 donations which pay for medicinal weed for those who cannot afford to purchase it themselves, he added.

“I know some of you had the intention of coming here today and voting in favor of Zach’s moratorium so you could help him save face and quiet some of the vociferous, privileged people anxious to protect their retirement nest egg… I encourage you to vote no on this moratorium and show people that our county places those in need over regressive, racist and hateful agendas,” Story said before a crowd cheered him out of the room.

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