Petaluma pot grow lays bare regulatory hurdles

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Sonoma County’s largest approved legal cannabis grow to date appears set to harvest its first plants late next year.

While that’s good news for Petaluma cannabis farmer Sam Magruder, it also illustrates the bureaucratic difficulties that have plagued the cannabis growing process in unincorporated Sonoma County since cannabis became legal statewide in 2018.

Getting a conditional use permit to grow up to an acre of cannabis indoor and outdoor at his Petaluma Hills Farm has taken Magruder about two and a half years.

“There’s a lot of environmental studies, land use studies, setback requirements, you have to create a (California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA) document,” Magruder said.

In order to get a permit, environmental and land use studies are required by the county which can include geological and biological assessments and other tests, according to Alexa Rae Wall, owner of Moonflower Delivery in San Rafael. Wall’s separate cannabis cultivation business, Luma California based in Penngrove, recently hit the two year mark in trying to get a conditional use permit to grow cannabis in Sonoma County.

Proving a proposed cannabis grow would not violate CEQA “is where people are getting stuck,” Wall said. “People are just waiting in line to get their environmental information processed.”

The expected impact of the grow is also sent to state agencies like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the relevant state level cannabis agencies for review. The county Board of Zoning Adjustments then votes on the permit, but that wasn’t the end of the process for Magruder.

Last week the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 against an appeal by some of Magruder’s Purvine Road neighbors against the project, allowing it to go forward.

Given the experience of Magruder and others, Wall said, “We’re assuming every project will get appealed.”

There is not consensus on why the program moves at the pace it does.

Maggie Fleming is the communications manager for the Permit and Resource Management Department of Sonoma County. Asked why it takes the time it does for conditional use permits to get approved, she said, “A large part of it is the public process,” including hearings and appeals like those experienced by Magruder and Wall.

Magruder’s operation “got appealed and went to the Board of Supervisors,” Fleming said. “That adds a lot of time to applications.”

In a follow-up email, Fleming wrote, “the timeline varies depending on the completeness of the applicant’s application, as well as whether the project goes before public hearing(s).” She added that “permitting cannabis is new to the county and all our referral agencies, and therefore it has taken time to review and get consensus on conditions and the process. The County remains committed to providing a legal pathway forward for cannabis operators, which we feel is essential in reducing and eliminating the illicit market.”

Joe Rogoway, a Santa Rosa-based cannabis law attorney, was blunter in his assessment.

“In the county of Sonoma the program has just been riddled with problems,” Rogoway said of the conditional use application process for cannabis farmers. “It’s a terrible program that has not been competently administered.”

Wall said why the process is so slow is “the million dollar question.” She added that the conditional use permit process in Sonoma County is rarely used and said, “To have a process the county rarely does and now they suddenly have hundreds of these permits to go through, they’re just not effective in issuing them in a timely manner.”

But there are other ways to grow cannabis in Sonoma County that do not have the same hurdles.

For outdoor grows of 10,000 square feet or less, farmers only have to go through the Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures and the zoning process according to Wall.

Instead of being assigned a county planning official like in the conditional use permit process, applicants work with the county agricultural department, submitting a site plan for the number of plants and estimates on land impact like how much water they will be using.

In an email, Fleming, the county official, wrote there are 24 cannabis conditional use permit applications in Sonoma County that “have been approved by a hearing body or a hearing waiver.”

“We have approximately 90 additional cannabis use permit applications in the pipeline,” Fleming wrote, noting that did not include agricultural cannabis permits, which are issued by Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures, or cannabis zoning permits.

For Magruder of Petaluma Hill Farms, the bureaucratic process has come with a price tag and he estimates he is “well over $1 million into the process,” including permitting and purchasing the land.

He said the next steps are to get building permits from the county for buildings that will function as grow sites but also drying and processing facilities.

While the process is not complete yet and plants are not quite in the ground, Magruder said getting the permission from the county is a “big win” for business in Sonoma County.

He said beyond the 10 full-time employees he has and the contractors he plans to work with, his victory shows there is “clearly a path forward for other cultivators.”

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