I voted for Prop. 64 six years ago because, as an environmental lawyer for 35 years, I wanted the devastating impacts of illegal cannabis grows curtailed. These included excess water consumption, pesticide use, degradation of water quality, odor, and, in the Coastal Zone, conflicts with visitor-serving uses, beach access, and public recreation. Keeping our public beaches available for the public first and foremost has always been the primary driver of the Coastal Act, and this state policy is now specifically recognized as an environmental justice issue.
Illegal grows were and are bad news. I believed, naively, that if growers and retailers were required to seek permits in a transparent process, under a carefully curated regulatory program, my environmental concerns would be addressed. Small farmers and people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by an unjust legal system would be the beneficiaries as licensees and owners. It has not worked out that way statewide, nor in Santa Barbara, where the county’s failures have already been documented in a scathing 2020 Grand Jury report and continue unchecked.
The truth is, the county went all in on cannabis, seeing only the color of money. In its haste, it did virtually nothing to stop illegal expansions of cultivators operating without permits. The county failed to effectively address odors, driving elderly, immune-compromised friends of mine in Carpinteria out of their homes. And, they’ve repeatedly made changes in the program to benefit cultivators without approval and certification by the Coastal Commission.
Worse, none of the lead actors seem capable of admitting error, let alone mending their ways: The county continues to cut corners on permit review, while hiding their decision-making process from the public. Cannabis lobbyists have unfettered access to the Board of Supervisors and staff. Officials fail to disclose accurately, or at all, what they are told in their backroom meetings. And, when they are caught in an error, they double down.
Now, having cut their Carpinteria cultivator-donors every break possible, the county is on the cusp of approving a “bonus” goldmine for them, the edible cherry on top: a convenient retail outlet on Santa Claus Lane, next to a beach that hosts 150,000 visitors a year.
Santa Claus Lane is a center for public access and lower-cost recreation. Santa Claus Lane’s businesses are oriented to family and youth beach uses which, by law, must take precedence over cannabis retail.
In addition to serving as the gateway to the beach, Santa Claus Lane provides a surf shop, surf camp, family restaurants, opportunities for biking and skateboarding, proximity to the Carpinteria Marsh, and access to the California Coastal Trail. It is, practically and legally, simply the wrong place for cannabis retail.
State policy says cannabis and kids don’t mix. The community does not want it there. A cannabis shop is intended to attract highway travelers, not local residents or beachgoers. And the county remains willfully ignorant of the fact that the Coastal Commission typically doesn’t support cannabis uses in areas where they conflict with public access.
The only people who want this site are the cultivators, and only for their convenience: The City of Carpinteria and the City of Ventura do not allow cannabis retail, period. This would be the only retail outlet between the City of Santa Barbara and Oxnard/Pt. Hueneme. It would, through apps such as Weedmaps, attract some portion of the 50,000 drivers a day on their way to somewhere else on the 101. The cannabis retail generates three times the number of vehicle trips as other retail, per the International Traffic Engineers.
But you don’t have to be a traffic engineer to understand that introducing an untold number of new vehicle trips to a street that is seriously deficient in public parking is a recipe for access, parking, circulation, and traffic safety conflicts. Incredibly, the county has not seriously attempted to account for the increase in traffic on the lane or its consequences for public access. The county seems to think that if you don’t count cars, they won’t come. Make no mistake: If this dispensary is approved, even with cosmetic conditions designed to paper over the problems, it will never be shut down.
The county is on the road, literally, to creating a public nuisance.
How Did We Get Here? What Can We Do?
Supervisor Williams promised the public a transparent process for siting dispensaries and that the county would retain authority to deny a project in a location that did not provide community benefit. But few people know what we just discovered: Waaaay back in 2019, then-deputy CEO Bozanich presented amendments to Chapter 50, the licensing ordinance including provisions for cannabis retail. When Williams asked Bozanich about the location for retail in the community plan areas, he responded that the Summerland/Toro Canyon location for cannabis retail “would effectively be Padaro/Santa Claus Lane.” All other sites were summarily rejected. In 2020, when Carpinteria residents and businesses were finally allowed to weigh in, they uniformly opposed retail at Santa Claus Lane. Little did they know the fix was in.
Our county remains Number 1 in cannabis cultivation licenses, boasting 23 percent — or 1,953 — of 8,247 state cultivation licenses. Of these licenses, 370 are for cannabis operations in the unincorporated Carpinteria/Toro Canyon area, which spans only about six square miles. The unincorporated Carp/Toro Canyon valley, made up of several Existing Developed Rural Neighborhoods (EDRN), is home to more cannabis cultivation than most entire counties. This glut of cultivation is a result of failures by the Board of Supervisors to appropriately regulate and limit the industry. It adds insult to injury to now demand that the Santa Claus Lane EDRN host retail cannabis at its primary youth- and family-serving recreation area.
The Board of Supervisors hearing on appeal is on November 1, 2022. There is still time to tell Das Williams and the board to stand up and take responsibility for their own errors and omissions and grant my clients’ appeal. If they still think a dispensary is “necessary” somewhere in the Montecito/Toro/Summerland plan areas, they must take the time to do an honest and transparent analysis of appropriate locations. If they won’t listen, anyone who participates in the board hearing, in person or in writing, has standing to appeal to the Coastal Commission. If you cannot show up in person, send emails to: email@example.com, subject: “Appeal of 3823 Santa Claus Lane Cannabis Retail Nov. 1, 2022”
Jana Zimmer is attorney for the appellants. She was a Chief Deputy County Counsel for land use from 1986-1991, served on the Coastal Commission from 2011-2015, and has written a legal guide entitled Navigating the California Coastal Act.