Tuesday’s Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting wasn’t all about cannabis, but for much of its duration, it certainly felt like it was. While the debate at times got convoluted and contentious, the punch line of the day was short and simple. The supervisors gave their collective thumbs-up to two cannabis projects that had been previously approved by the county’s Planning Commission and subsequently appealed by their neighbors.
Roots Carpinteria Dispensary
Barring a reversal by the California Coastal Commission, a new cannabis dispensary dubbed Roots Carpinteria will soon be going into the sprawling beachside shopping area located on Santa Claus Lane. The supervisors unanimously approved this project — bitterly fought by some of the merchants, many nearby residents, and one of the major commercial owners in the shopping complex — rejecting arguments made by opponents that the additional traffic generated by the new dispensary would overwhelm the already-strained parking capacity of the surrounding beachfront environs.
This added strain, the dispensary’s critics contended, would effectively limit beach access to the untold number of visitors who make the Santa Claus Lane Beach so populated every summer weekend. They also argued the dispensary would destroy the family-friendly beach vibe of Santa Claus Lane, violating in the process state and county restrictions that barred dispensaries from opening shop within 750 feet of what are known as “sensitive receptor sites.” In this case, the supervisors were told by opponents there were two such sites, both surf camps that catered exclusively to students under 18.
Supervisor Bob Nelson, no cheerleader of the cannabis industry, noted that traffic studies showed that a new coffee shop at the site would increase traffic twice as much as the proposed dispensary would. Should the supervisors reject a coffee shop from occupying the vacant space once home to an art gallery? he wondered.
Nelson also took issue with the opponents’ argument that the surf camps constituted sensitive receptor sites. As the father of three teenage sons and a former high school teacher, Nelson said, he was keenly mindful of the looming temptation posed by drugs like cannabis. While the surf camps operated out of storefronts 150 feet from the proposed dispensary site, Nelson argued the actual teaching took place on the beach itself, located well beyond the 750-foot buffer zone.
The battle over Santa Claus Lane, however, appears far from over. The legal representative and chief spokesperson for the opposition has been Jana Zimmer, a former member of the California Coastal Commission, not to mention a former attorney with the County Counsel’s Office. Zimmer, ever a formidable foe, left no stone unturned or any argument left unstated, establishing along the way a voluminous record upon which she can take her case to the Coastal Commission on what’s regarded as an all but certain appeal.
Zimmer’s nemesis throughout was the county’s former de facto cannabis czar, Dennis Bozanich, who played a pivotal role crafting the county’s cannabis ordinances after voters statewide voted to legalize the sale and possession of recreational cannabis. Bozanich — along with former Carpinteria city councilmember and outspoken conservative Joe Armendariz — has been hired to function as lobbyist for the new dispensary — the first of six slated to be located in the county’s unincorporated land mass.
Zimmer and Bozanich have sparred heatedly and personally in the weeks preceding Tuesday’s hearing with taking potshots at the ethics of the other. To the extent any such pyrotechnics were on display Tuesday, it was between Zimmer and Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the district in question. He took issue with opponents whose approach, he complained, was “attack, attack, attack!” Zimmer objected and sought to respond, but her allotted time was exhausted. She did note that the “institutional bias” in favor of approving the dispensary by county staff was so intense it constituted “a rolling due process violation.”
Supervisors Steve Lavagnino and Gregg Hart both described visiting cannabis dispensaries at various times and being struck by how professionally run they were. Lavagnino — now concluding his third term in office — noted he was invariably the youngest person present aside from dispensary staff.
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Nojoqui Farms Cannabis Cultivation Project
Farther up the coast about four miles south of Buellton, a blueberry farmer and rival cannabis grower took exception to the approval given to a new 20-acre cannabis grow secured by the Nojoqui Farms Cannabis Cultivation Project at the former site of the Sunburst organic farms. At issue was how much water the new cannabis operation would use and whether that glass — metaphorically — was half empty or half full.
Agents for the operation argued that they’d be using only one-half as much water as the former organic produce farm and that they had 10 years’ worth of water use records to back it up.
Representatives of a nearby blueberry farm owner — and a neighboring cannabis operator — were not impressed. The Nojoqui Farms’ operation, they claimed, would still be drawing down the groundwater basin upon which they all must rely. By law, they insisted, the new cannabis operators should be allowed to pump water from the ground for only four months out of the year.
The legal validity of that assertion, however, depends entirely on whether the water pumped is defined as “surface water” — though pumped from underground — or subterranean in origin. By state law, surface waters are subject to greater protections. The appellants all insisted the water Nojoqui Farms would pump was surface in origin; Nojoqui Farms operators insisted otherwise.
All parties buttressed their arguments with testimony of dueling geologists and hydro-geologists. Experts for the appellants claimed that the increased pumping would draw down water levels in Nojoqui Creek. The expert for the applicant claimed his numbers said just the opposite. Before it was over, the experts hired by the appellants would accuse the applicant’s expert of being a “pseudo-scientist.” The accused pseudo-scientist countered by accusing one of his detractors, the blueberry farmer, of using far more water than he publicly admitted. The blueberry farmer denied the claim.
Ultimately, the supervisors were persuaded that they lacked the jurisdiction to resolve the dispute over water rights. That call, they were informed by legal counsel, lay in the hands of the California Water Control Board or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. And these agencies, the supervisors were told, could only weigh in after the supervisors had given the Nojoqui Farm operators the green light.
Supervisor Joan Hartmann objected that this process was “ass-backwards.” It was all well and good, she said, for the Nojoqui Farm operators to share their water use rates with the county every two months, she said. But what recourse was there if the increased pumping reduced the water levels in the creek? With California shifting from a “mega drought” into what is now known as a “giga-drought,” she argued, greater caution was called for especially given that Santa Barbara ranked in the state’s top one percent for vegetable and fruit cultivation.
Hartmann was the only supervisor to vote against the new cannabis project; even she termed her opposition a “protest vote.”