Stricter Permits for Outdoor Cannabis Projects in Santa Barbara County?

After Years of Controversy, County Board of Supervisors May Tighten Rules

The Sta. Rita Hills region west of Buellton is a federally designated American Viticultural Area; the county has approved zoning permits for 350 acres of cannabis there. | Credit: Melinda Burns

In just two weeks, zoning permit approvals for outdoor cannabis “grows” will likely reach the 1,575-acre cap that was set by the county Board of Supervisors for unincorporated areas outside the Carpinteria Valley — if the growers with permits are able to get their business licenses, authorities say.

That will leave 1,560 acres, mostly in the North County, that have been proposed for cannabis cultivation, are under county review, and won’t make the cap. These projects can be approved for permits, county Planning & Development Director Lisa Plowman told the board on Tuesday. But, she said, the applicants won’t get their business licenses or be allowed to start operating unless a grower who qualifies for a license under the cap fails to get one or lets it expire.

Signaling a dramatic change from past policy, the board voted 3-2 on Tuesday to direct planners to draw up a cannabis ordinance amendment that would require a more stringent permit, called a conditional-use permit, for any outdoor cannabis operation that doesn’t make the cap. The amendment would apply to all unincorporated areas except the Carpinteria Valley, where the board has set a 186-acre cap on cannabis grown in greenhouses.

Credit: Courtesy

Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents much of the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally designated American Viticultural Area west of Buellton, proposed the change. In recent years, the county’s approval of permits for 350 acres of cannabis in the Sta. Rita Hills has provoked three lawsuits and generated bitter conflicts with vintners and Buellton residents. Cannabis critics have long complained about the smell of pot that wafts into their neighborhoods and wine tasting rooms at harvest time. Vintners fear that the smelly gases given off by cannabis could harm their grapes, and there have been clashes over potential pesticide “drift” from grapes.

Applications for 250 additional acres of cannabis are in the pipeline and under review for the Sta. Rita Hills, county reports show. On Tuesday, Hartmann raised the possibility that the cap on cannabis cultivation might be lifted in the future, though she says she “absolutely” does not support such a measure. 

Under existing permit regulations, most outdoor cannabis growers can’t be required to install odor-control technology, reduce the size of their operations, or provide large buffers from neighboring farms and homes. 

“If we look at the Santa Rita Hills, the die is pretty much cast,” Hartmann said. 

Conditional-use permits, she noted, would require future cannabis projects to be “compatible with” and “not detrimental to” surrounding neighborhoods. In this way, Hartmann said, the county could require the latest innovations in odor control for all such projects.

“Our current standards might seem quite dated in the future if we open up that cap,” she said.

Board Chair Bob Nelson of Orcutt, who represents a portion of the Sta. Rita Hills, agreed with Hartmann, and so did Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the South Coast from eastern Santa Barbara to the Carpinteria Valley. Williams said, “I agree we should not go past the cap; it’s too soon for that.”

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Supervisor Steve Lavagnino of the Santa Maria Valley and Supervisor Gregg Hart, who represents western Santa Barbara and the Goleta Valley, opposed requiring conditional-use permits across the board for outdoor cannabis, saying they had no intention of lifting the acreage cap in the first place. Hart said the cap was “the smartest thing we ever did.”

“I don’t understand why we’re talking about lifting the cap,” he said. “That’s a terrible message.”

Last year, the board majority of Hart, Lavagnino, and Williams voted against a motion by Hartmann that would have required conditional-use permits for cannabis cultivation and processing throughout the county. Separately, they also voted against her motion to require such permits for the Sta. Rita Hills wine region alone.

The county Grand Jury; county Farm Bureau; Santa Barbara Vintners; Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis; Concerned Carpinterians; the cities of Buellton, Goleta, and Carpinteria; and a host of homeowners’ associations urged the board last year to require conditional-use permits for cannabis projects as a way to rein in an industry they viewed as disruptive and out of control.

“My office has been working toward this for a long time,” Hartmann said after the hearing. “We want to have an opportunity to take what we’ve learned and apply it to future permits. 

Marc Chytilo, an attorney for the coalition, said the group “has asked for conditional-use permits because they give the county much greater control over cannabis projects.” And the acreage cap, he said, is “the third rail in Santa Barbara County’s cannabis permit process, a central element that limits the scale of the industry here.”

“The board’s unanimous endorsement signals that the cap is here to stay,” he said.

Williams said he voted in favor of conditional-use permits this time because he and Hartmann had not been able to secure a per-parcel cap on cannabis in the Sta. Rita Hills, and because, in the North County, “I am not always seeing growers working with the Planning Commission to modify projects.” Finally, Williams said, “I want to discourage applications that go far beyond the cap.”

It will take six months to draw up the ordinance amendment and go through public hearings, Plowman said.

In two separate hearings before the board on Tuesday, a handful of growers and their agents pressed the supervisors to lift the 1,575-acre cap. One attorney suggested recalculating it, based on the actual canopy of the marijuana plants and not the entire area covered by hoop-houses. Several growers said the cap could hurt the county because, if and when interstate cannabis trade is legalized, the current glut of cannabis would quickly become a thing of the past. Still others said they had gotten caught up in the drawn-out permit application process, only to watch the clock run out on them. 

Among the petitioners were Jay Pretto and Eric Lightman, who said they have been trying to obtain a conditional-use permit for a five-acre “grow” near Lompoc since 2019.

“We’ve seen other projects get on their way, and, as we approach the cap, it looks like we might be left high and dry,” Lightman said. “I would urge you to consider small farms like us.… Give us the opportunity to come out the other end with an operational farm.”

Nick Welsh of the Santa Barbara Independent contributed to this report.

Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.

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