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It’s Wine vs. Weed in the Valley

Buellton-Area Cannabis Operations Get Wings Clipped Following Appeal

County Planning Commissioner John Parke (left) said that if we were to approve the 22 acres of cannabis hoop houses in Santa Ynez Valley proposed by Busy Bee Organics’ Sara Rotman (right), he’d soon find himself “swinging from a lamppost.” | Credit: Paul Wellman File

In old western movies, it was the farmers and ranchers who were forever fighting over the wide-open spaces. In the Santa Ynez Valley, however, they’ve been supplanted by the cannabis growers versus the wine industry. Or so it would seem from last week’s deliberations in front of the County Planning Commission. 

That’s where three approved cannabis operations — all slated for Highway 246 just outside Buellton — had been taken to the Planning Commission on appeal, two by vintner Blair Pence, an especially outspoken critic of cannabis operations. Although all three operations were received differently by the commissioners, all had their wings clipped significantly. One was shot down outright, and the other two were approved but with heavy conditions. All three will almost certainly be appealed to the Board of Supervisors for final disposition. In some instances, it’s likely both sides will be doing the appealing.

Of the three, the Busy Bee proposal, run by entrepreneurial branding guru Sara Rotman, is perhaps the best known. Rotman had secured a much-coveted land-use permit to grow 22 acres of cannabis under 22 acres of hoop houses on property where she lives off Highway 246. Although Rotman marshalled considerable support from her immediate neighbors — even those growing grapes and broccoli — Planning Commission chair John Parke wasn’t buying it. 

Parke and the commissioners voted unanimously to allow Rotman’s proposal to move forward, but with such intense restrictions that it remains uncertain Rotman will accept them. At his most dramatic, Parke said if he approved 22 acres of hoop houses in the Santa Ynez Valley, he’d soon find himself “swinging from a lamppost.” 

Hoop houses are regarded as visual blight by many in the Santa Ynez Valley, especially those in the lucrative field of wine tourism. The commission ultimately decreed that only five acres of cannabis could be cultivated under Rotman’s hoops and that the total number of acres of cannabis allowed needed to be reduced from 22 to 17. 

Parke and his fellow planning commissioners expressed concern about a possible overconcentration of cannabis at the westerly edge of the Santa Ynez Design Overlay district. In that area, Parke commented, 4,000 square feet of hoop houses could be approved per customer. Rotman’s proposal, he argued, would be nearly a million.

With Rotman, Parke took pains to highlight the key bones of contention between the emerging cannabis industry and existing agriculture: smell, visual blight, and pesticide creep. Parke noted that one of Rotman’s neighbors, a broccoli farmer, had reported receiving a warning letter from Rotman’s lawyer about pesticide creep. The state has set notoriously low thresholds of pesticide exposure for cannabis. Farmers of other crops have objected they might be legally liable should cannabis growers on adjoining properties find themselves adversely affected by pesticide creep — even if the application meets state requirements. To date, the county’s Agricultural Commissioner is actively investigating one such case, but the results aren’t conclusive. 

The other issue, of course, is odor. Parke and the commissioners voted unanimously to mandate that a host of odor-control solutions suggested as possibilities by Rotman be required as part of her project description. (Rotman stressed during her presentation that her cannabis is removed off-site immediately upon fruition and that no drying — often the most odiferous part of the process — takes place on the premises.) Lastly, the commissioners voted to include a “reopener clause” that would allow the director of Planning and Development to determine in two years whether existing conditions sufficiently address these issues or not. Although Rotman technically won, neither side left the commission chambers with a smile on their face.

The other two cannabis operations were appealed by Pence, who has described cannabis as an “existential threat” confronting the wine industry. Pence won big in his appeal of Santa Barbara West Coast Farms, a 73-acre cannabis proposal the commissioners denied in a 3-2 vote, and of the Santa Rita Hills cannabis project, which the commissioners voted to approve but as a significantly scaled-back project. The project owners came into the room with permits to operate a 37-acre cultivation site; they left with permits to build 12.75 acres instead.

During deliberations, Busy Bee’s attorney Susan Petrovich noted that Pence himself has serious permit violations with his wine tasting room. According to county enforcement records, Pence has been operating his tasting room without all the necessary permits and is now looking at fines as high as $4,000 for his transgressions. Pence is appealing those fines, arguing that they are “unprecedented” and that he has been the victim of a vendetta instigated by the cannabis industry but executed by county planners. County planners deny any vendetta, pointing out that Pence has continued to operate the tasting room in spite of repeated demands that he cease and desist. 

Pence acknowledged that he lacks all the necessary permits for his tasting room but insisted he’s working on them. Fines, he said, are not typically imposed in such situations. He noted that he was first found out of compliance two days after he filed his appeals. He also suggested that Petrovich would be in a good position to know about his permit vulnerabilities because she worked for him to obtain those permits. (The permits have been granted, but Pence is required to build a left-hand-lane turn extension before he can operate his wine tasting room.) 

Petrovich denied tracking his compliance history after she’d completed his job, but she had learned recently there might be issues. “I was surprised that he was throwing stones at cannabis growers’ projects when he hasn’t bothered to bring his own property into legal compliance with the winery permit,” she stated. “I recall something about people who live in glass houses.” 

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