On June 2, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will consider Cannabis Ordinance amendments unanimously recommended by the Planning Commission. The principle component of these amendments is to require all permits to be conditional. This will provide the planning department broader ability to constrict projects based on community feedback. This is long overdue, and one would not be faulted for being surprised that the current ordinance does not already allow for such governance.
Prudent governance is the wisdom this ordinance needs. At this stage and in this format, it is fruitless to point fingers or make accusations of motive wondering “how is it we are only now ending up where we ought to have begun?” Past motives and paths to the current cannabis ordinance are behind us, we should look to what is in front of us and seize the opportunity to enhance the county’s ability to reduce what has become obvious agriculture conflict with legacy crops.
The cultivation of cannabis near various legacy crops across California has increasingly revealed incompatibilities due to one grower’s normal and legal standard operating practices impacting another’s. In Santa Barbara County, the problem is exacerbated by the unprecedented grow size permitted. As a result, there is nowhere to look — in the entire world — for understanding of how to solve issues of incapability. Prior to enacting the current ordinance, no grow in the world was over 30 acres. In California, no other county has permitted outdoor grows larger than 2 acres except one: San Luis Obispo County allows 3 acres outdoor on a minimum parcel size of 25 acres. For reference, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors recently voted 3-2 to permit 22-acre and 50-acre grows. Permits are in queue for more, including 70 acres and 147 acres. What has every other county seen that we did not?
Santa Barbara County’s “governance” invited a green rush from large cannabis operators within the state (and investors beyond) to flout the spirit of Prop. 64 which was intended to provide small farmers the ability to emerge from the dark market into the light with a leg up: no large licenses (more than 1 acre outdoor) were to be given out by the state until 2023. We have seen unprecedented grows operate under multiple 1-acre state licenses on the same parcel creating the largest grows in the world under “legal non-conforming” status, i.e. without official county cannabis permits and without large state licenses. Requiring all permits heretofore to be conditional use permits provides necessary governance in a county that has set a path into such uncharted territory.
With county coffers pinched prior to COVID-19 crisis, one could understand the desire to find direct funds to assist county services. Why would I, a wine grower and libertarian-leaning citizen, care about what crop a neighbor wants to grow that helps directly fund the government? In principal, I don’t. If cannabis is the next cash crop to rotate through an agriculture area to assist maintaining its agricultural identity and it can support local laborers, the economy, and the county services, so be it.
However, I am not an anarchist and believe in responsible governance. Letting the market decide which crops we grow and which crops this area’s high cost of living can support is one thing, losing the ability to successfully operate your business because of the neighbor’s crop is another. Sadly, this is precisely what the current cannabis ordinance without conditional options encourages — particularly for wine grapes.
Governance demands that the county ensure it does not expense its future for short-term gain. Wine grapes, the world over, have demonstrated an ability to maintain the rural, agriculture nature of regions and support local laborers, the economy, and county services even as costs rise. While winegrowing was once the unwelcome newcomer to Santa Barbara, it has now woven itself into the fabric and identity of this area and risen to the status of legacy ag. Over the last 40 years, and specifically in the last 25 years the Santa Barbara County wine industry has established its core marketing identity around the unique climate, soil, and topography of area.
We understand this may not be enough to create motivation for protecting such a crop. However, the industry (whose impact in S.B. County has been valued by Stonebridge Research Report in 2016 at over $1.7 billion) is sizeable enough to merit preservation. Since wine grape value gets placed on specific pieces of land and those wine grapes cannot be replicated elsewhere (Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Napa Valley, etc.), the supply from such places becomes limited. This creates a situation of scarcity increasing the perceived value of the product. Wine — tied to a certain location – can sustain a price that sustains need for increased wages, etc. Furthermore, this elevated status invites visitors who can afford luxury priced accommodations, restaurants, and retail the county offers.
Unlike a product like cannabis, where the goal is ‘x’ amount of THC to produce ‘y’ high and to offer specific flavors through breeding — all of which can be accomplished independent it of its appellation of origin opening itself up to commodity status, wine grape’s best opportunity has been proven the world over to be tied to its appellation of origin. If, in five years, cannabis can be shipped across state lines increasing competitive supply, will S.B. County cannabis be able to sustain increased costs in the likely scenario of decreased revenue?
Santa Barbara County wine grapes, at its best and highest value, will never be replicated across the globe, which fixes its supply. As we build its distribution — county wine is already sold in multiple countries — we will be able to increase its value and its overall contribution to long term goals of preserving Santa Barbara County’s bucolic seaside nature.
I urge you to consider supporting the Planning Commission’s recommended Cannabis Ordinance amendments by writing your supervisor ahead of the June 2 hearing. Support for this amendment is not anti-cannabis, it is pro-county, pro-agriculture, and supports a level playing field to preserve a legacy crop that is a safe bet for the long term. One should not have to wait until they are impacted by a thing to demand responsible governance of it.
Tyler Thomas is the president of and winemaker at Star Lane • Dierberg Vineyards.