Tempers got sufficiently hot at Tuesday’s public hearing over the county’s cannabis ordinance that Supervisor Steve Lavagnino found himself threatening to have Sheriff’s Office bailiffs haul out members of a notably large, angry, rambunctious crowd if they didn’t stop interrupting.
By that time, it turned out, bailiffs had escorted out one especially incensed cannabis critic from a nearby room after he called John De Friel, a prominent Santa Ynez cannabis grower and member of the county’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, “an asshole.”
De Friel had just finished testifying before the supervisors when William “Bubba” Hines approached him. Hines denied grabbing or touching De Friel, but said he wanted to express his frustration that De Friel was growing 70 acres of cannabis next to the 22 acres of grapes he’s growing and the tasting room he hopes to build. The smell from the cannabis, Hines said, will adversely affect his wine operation. Hines denied being walked out by bailiffs. “I told them I was leaving anyway,” he said.
All this drama occurred not long after Supervisor Das Williams got into a blistering exchange with Carpinteria resident Peter Lapidus, who had complained bitterly of the intrusive cannabis stench caused by vapors emanating from Carpinteria’s ocean of greenhouses. Lapidus was part of a large contingent — calling themselves Concerned Carpinterians — who showed up dressed in red shirts and jackets with multiple clothespins attached. The clothespins alluded to the cannabis stench that’s settled over portions of the Carpinteria Valley in the past two years. The group was demanding a moratorium on new cannabis permits.
Lapidus objected to the lack of enforcement by the county. He complained that he had not been invited to attend a meeting held by Williams — who represents Carpinteria — in his own home to discuss odor-abatement strategies. Williams later explained he thought Lapidus had unfairly characterized that meeting as being somehow “nefarious.” Williams launched into Lapidus, stating, “To get a lecture from you, who’s been taking water out of the Carpinteria Valley to give it to rich people in Montecito, is a real piece of work.” By that, Williams meant Lapidus had been selling water from his family well to water-parched property owners in Montecito during the depth of the drought.
“You just made an accusation that’s untrue,” Lapidus replied. “Along with yours, Mr. Lapidus,” Williams responded. The two would later continue their contentious exchange in the hallways of the County Administration Building and later still in many subsequent emails, but not before Lapidus tossed out, “You’re a sell-out.” As one longtime county employee wryly noted, “Nothing like a little indica to get everyone riled up.”
It’s been barely a year now since Proposition 65 — the statewide ballot initiative legalizing recreational-marijuana cultivation, manufacture, and sales — has gone into effect. It’s been less since Santa Barbara supervisors approved an ordinance regulating the newly legalized cannabis business within county lines. In that time, about 100 operators have secured slightly more than 2,200 temporary permits in Santa Barbara, the largest number of any county. If all those permits were to be utilized to the maximum extent possible, that would be about 500 acres of legal cannabis cultivation. Practically, the real number is closer to 300.
Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t set up to be a mass vent-fest about cannabis. It quickly became just that, however. On the table were seven proposals to tweak the ordinance in relatively small ways. But those almost got lost in the shuffle as Carpinteria residents — led by noted journalist Ann Louise Bardach — blistered the supervisors for rolling out the red carpet for cannabis growers while selling residents down the river for tax revenues and campaign donations.
Mostly, they complained about the smell, but also about increased crime, either the threat or reality. They predicted their property values would fall by proximity to pot operations. From up north in Tepusquet Canyon — just outside Santa Maria — a contingent of cannabis critics sang a similar lament. There was a strong showing of critics from Los Alamos and Solvang as well, angered principally by the powerful odors. New to the debate were wine growers and representatives of the wine industry. Strong cannabis smells, they complained, was wreaking havoc on tasting room business. They cited studies suggesting that strong ambient odors can change the chemical composition of the grapes themselves, altering their intrinsic flavors.
There was a desperate sense of urgency to their testimony, which was often angry in tone, personal in attack. County staff members were singled out by name, derided as willing stooges of an uncaring industry rooted in greed. “The room was different,” said one county official of the meeting. “It was just very different.”
The cannabis industry showed up in significant numbers as well. Their tone was more low-key. They acknowledged the negative impacts inflicted by “a few bad actors” but stressed that they would soon be weeded out as the permitting system for both the county and state had time to truly engage. Many pledged allegiance to all the best industry practices, especially where odor-control systems were concerned.
They complained, however, that no crop in the history of California agriculture had ever been so intensely — or expensively — regulated. To submit complete applications for all the permits needed, one grower stated, could cost up to $200,000. Another took exception to accusations and insinuations of backroom influence, noting there had been 27 public hearings on the county’s cannabis ordinance and two workshops. Ultimately, the argued, it’s still way too soon to say the existing ordinances haven’t worked; not one of the 100 growers now in the permitting process has yet to emerge with all the county and state approvals needed to have a legally vested enterprise.
With nonnegotiable, non-extendable deadlines fast approaching, Dennis Bozanich — the county administrator in charge of cannabis matters — suggested many of the operators now seeking permits might find themselves out of luck as of this April. “You’re either in the boat or not in the boat,” Bozanich said. Right now, he said, the county is trying to get as many operators from “the dock” to “the boat.” Those that don’t make it by April will find themselves high and dry. Their number could be as high as 50. Those that do not voluntarily cease cultivation could have their operations shut down.
To date, the county has launched enforcement operations against 20 operators either for cultivating without permits or cultivating in excess of what their permits allowed. On Wednesday, county enforcement agents raided a Carpinteria cannabis farm on Casitas Pass Road, destroying 20,000 plants. More than that, they seized two containers — each with a carrying capacity of 40 cubic yards — containing ready-for-sale product. The owners reportedly once had permits but surrendered them when confronted with evidence indicating they’d perjured themselves in the application process.
Carpinteria has been ground zero of the debate. As the cut-flower industry tanked, growers there filled their empty greenhouses with cannabis instead. Two years ago, there were at least 42 operations in Carp; today, that number has shrunk, though no one pretends to know what a truly accurate figure is. To get the necessary permits to become fully legal, odor-control systems must be installed. But many operators have not been inclined to make the sizable investment. Instead, Williams said, these operators “just want to get one more year and then get the hell out.”
Carpinteria residents who want a moratorium, he claimed, are just prolonging their own agony. “If we go that route, that will require action by the supervisors; that takes time,” he said. “Then it has to go to the Coastal Commission for approval; that’s more time.” By contrast, he argued, the current system will make clear which operators are in the boat or out in a matter of months. In the meantime, however, he will be feeling his constituents’ pain; Concerned Carpinterians will see to that.
The supervisors did take baby steps Tuesday to ban cannabis cultivation on smaller parcels zoned for agricultural. The bigger fight still to come is what level of odor control the supervisors will mandate on larger agricultural parcels. Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann — who represents the Santa Ynez Valley — pushed for new setback and odor-control requirements for cultivation on such properties to protect, among others, the vineyards.
Wine-industry representatives contend that Santa Barbara County is unique in allowing cannabis operators to “stack” multiple small licenses — each for 10,000 square feet — in order to create much more sizable operations. Such big “grows,” they contend, are creating serious odor problems for the tasting rooms, where 78 percent of all wine is reportedly sold. Hines charged cannabis operators were exploiting a loophole in state law to create the biggest concentration of cannabis grown in the state. Bozanich agreed there’s more “stacking” in Santa Barbara than anywhere else.
But Hartmann got nowhere this Tuesday. Leading the charge against her was Lavagnino, who argued that odor-control devices would be impractical. Would they be required for broccoli and cauliflower as well? he asked. Both stink.
Perhaps Tuesday’s showdown was so loud and intense because of pent-up anxiety and frustration. Until serious assurances can be made that the odor problems will be effectively addressed, that anxiety will persist, and the arguments will continue.