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Sonoma County measure relaxing cannabis restrictions gains planners’ approval

A measure to ease permitting for Sonoma County’s commercial cannabis cultivators gained quiet approval from planning commissioners and is headed for contentious public hearings by the Board of Supervisors.

The 33-page amendment to county zoning codes would give the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office more authority to issue cultivation permits without public notice or a hearing, a step strenuously opposed by rural residents who don’t want marijuana growing anywhere near them.

On a 3-2 vote, county planning commissioners on Thursday approved a resolution urging supervisors to adopt the amendment sought by the county’s burgeoning cannabis industry. No date has yet been set for the supervisors to take up the issue.

The hearing, closed to public comment, lasted less than an hour.

“We’ve been trying to get the smaller growers some relief,” Planning Commissioner Lawrence Reed said.

Commission Chairman Greg Carr, who cast one of the nay votes, said he wanted to “make cannabis a permitted use in a very broad sense.”

The authority granted to the agriculture commissioner “is getting a little bit closer,” he said, adding that “what we’re recommending to the board isn’t the quickest way to do that.”

The resolution declined to recommend a proposal to include cannabis “within the meaning of agriculture and agricultural use” in the county’s General Plan.

It also called upon the supervisors to pursue “a more comprehensive update of commercial cannabis permitting,” including cannabis uses in commercial and industrial zoned areas.

Outdoor cultivation is currently limited to properties 10 acres or larger outside city limits on land zoned for agriculture and resource development.

A planning staff report last month said the permit streamlining measure was intended to “eliminate restrictions and prohibitions that currently apply only to cannabis cultivation, which were originally implemented out of an abundance of caution.”

Some restrictions “have become antiquated, burdensome and of minimal usefulness” as the county has become familiar with cannabis cultivation and related laws, the report said.

Rural residents remain opposed to proliferation of cannabis gardens, with a group called the Neighborhood Coalition asserting the proposed zoning amendment would open up 65,000 acres to new growth in the county.

A county planning document said the amendment would cover up to 65,753 acres but added it was “extremely unlikely” all available land would be used to grow cannabis.

The amendment would remove the 1-acre cap on cannabis plantings on properties 10 acres or more and allow them on 10% of the parcel.

Sonoma County has issued 184 cultivation permits since 2017 in a place that was once home to about 3,000 growers, many of them considered “mom and pop” operations.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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