The amount of marijuana grown in Carpinteria greenhouses remains amorphous; grower estimates range from 20 to 30 acres out of roughly 280 acres total.
Paul Wellman (file)

At 7 p.m. on Mondays, during Zumba class at Carpinteria’s Boys & Girls Club, an unmistakably fresh stench of cannabis flowers can be whiffed from the greenhouse next door. At the high school across the street, teachers must show up early to air out their classrooms. One teacher said the odor is pungent three days a week. “It’s like someone is smoking in the classroom,” she said. “It’s very distracting.”

Cannabis crops have increasingly augmented Carpinteria greenhouses, which had become less profitable in recent years. Growers estimate 20-30 acres of weed plants are currently cultivated in greenhouses out of 280 acres total “under glass.” As more cannabis is grown, the smell of ripe buds has become more pungent. Created by the plant’s essential oils, known as terpenes, the odors are strongest when cannabis flowers are budding, which happens virtually all the time because planters stagger growth cycles.

In the first week of May, there were 12 odor complaints in Carpinteria logged with the county’s planning department. By contrast, from January to May, there were zero. A small group of women affiliated with the Carpinteria Valley Association (CVA) are likely the root of this recent spike. Longtime community activists Anna Carrillo, Sally Eagle, Sandy Kuttler, and others are gearing up to push back against marijuana odors drifting throughout their neighborhoods.

By many accounts, they are a force to be reckoned with. “I have yet to see them lose a battle,” said longtime Carpinteria resident and nationally renowned journalist Annie Bardach. “Well, maybe a battle but not the war.” Bardach, who has occasionally jumped into the fray with them, said their successes include preserving the Carpinteria Bluffs, preventing development at Rancho Monte Alegre, and taking down the old Carpinteria water board. (CVA president Mike Wondolowski has also sent letters to city and county government, urging officials to stringently regulate the industry.)

They say they are not totally anti-pot. In fact, two of them voted for Proposition 64, the state bill to legalize recreational marijuana, because they don’t believe low–level drug users should be thrown in jail. And they realize Santa Barbara County is poised to permit cannabis like wine grapes.

As the state and county prepare to implement laws regulating and taxing the cultivation (and perhaps production) of cannabis, Carpinteria appears to be growers’ new haven. In this rustic beach town, vacant and sometimes dilapidated greenhouses are increasingly valuable real estate.

Whether they like it or not, everyone is talking about it. But many seasoned Realtors, attorneys, and growers declined to publicly discuss the burgeoning market, citing confusion and sensitivities. Even school officials in Carpinteria declined to comment about marijuana odor complaints well-known throughout the small town. Several growers in Carpinteria have retained public relations firm California Strategies and Democratic campaign strategist Mollie Culver and Cory Black.

Fifteen years ago, the county placed restrictions on the development of greenhouses in the Carpinteria Valley. It’s an even bigger question how many contain pot plants. So far, 110 operators ​— ​who grow marijuana or intend to ​— ​have signed the county’s voluntary registry. Weed map websites, though, show hundreds of cannabis operators exist throughout Santa Barbara County.

Sitting around a kitchen table one recent late afternoon, the women spoke frankly about the piercing smell they first thought was actually new litters of skunks. Others describe the odor as a minty, sage-like smell rather than burning pot. But no one refutes it exists. “It hangs in the air,” Eagle said.

They recently started posting to social media site Next Door and informed neighbors how to complain about odors through the county’s zoning website. A key obstacle is determining the exact address where smells originate as changing winds make them difficult to track down. Of the 12 complaints county officials received from May 3-11, just one letter was sent to the property owner. The other locations could not be pinpointed, according to the county CEO’s office.

Professionals in the cannabis industry, however, say that if odors are the biggest problem, it’s a good one to have. Odor control technologies such as carbon scrubber systems and air filters can be highly effective, they say, but large-scale installations can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. Some growers hesitate to make such an investment until they are assured county officials will permit their operations next year after the ordinance is approved.

“It should be required,” said Graham Farrar of Elite Garden, which manufactures equipment to grow cannabis and represents some growers. “Conversely, you need to give that operator some comfort his business won’t be shut down in four months.”

Medical marijuana is currently the only legal cannabis grown in Carpinteria. Operating as a collective, growers can only have a certain number of plants for each patient with a marijuana card or a letter from a doctor. In other words, each plant is matched to a specific patient and tracked through a computer system. Pot grown in Carp is shipped to Los Angeles for processing.

In January 2016, the county supervisors adopted a ban on all new medical marijuana cultivation. This created a fuzzy landscape because county officials don’t know who is growing and when they started. Speculation abounds that many now growing medical marijuana were not doing so prior to 2016.

Another wrinkle, these “nonconforming” structures could be in a catch-22: Growers fear installing large air ventilators would alter their structure, meaning they would no longer be “nonconforming” and could be targeted by county inspectors and angry neighbors.

Prices of these structures have increased by as much as 60 percent, compared to five years ago, Realtors say. Some have recently changed hands without agents; prospective buyers just show up and make an offer to owners. Interested growers have come in from out of the area, looking to offer high prices for these existing structures.

Carpinteria’s sea of greenhouses make the area uniquely situated to capitalize on this market, which could translate to millions of dollars in tax revenues for strapped county coffers. (A consultant hired by the county is in the process of studying many issues.)

Cannabis professionals claimed negative publicity about wafting odors could deter capital investors interested in this area. And residents, they say, will just get pot grown throughout California.

For Carrillo and the others, it’s all about being a good neighbor. They are beginning to distribute petitions at book clubs and farmers’ markets. Specifically the group is seeking to expand the legal distance marijuana can be grown from schools and youth centers. They argue it should be 1,000 feet, not 600 feet as has been considered. If they get their way, many greenhouses along Foothill Road, near Carpinteria High School, the Boys & Girls Club, and Girls Inc., could be shut down. They also want to mandate odor-control devices.

The Carpinteria high school teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, asked, “How much worse is it going to get?” Marijuana industry professionals say it won’t; in fact, it’ll get better because odor-abatement technology will be the norm.

Neighborhood critics are also worried about security, as these operations deal almost exclusively in cash. Growers are driving to appointments at the IRS offices with hundreds of thousands of dollar bills to pay their quarterly taxes. No Santa Barbara banks currently take these clients, out of fear the feds will go after them and because they are labor intensive.

Although U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has “certainly raised the temperature a little,” as Farrar put it, most in the marijuana industry dismissed his harsh words. Plus, Congress, through a recent spending bill, is prohibiting the Drug Enforcement Administration from using federal dollars to target medical marijuana operations in states where pot is legal. As for California, Farrar said, “There is no indication of things slowing down.”


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