Meagan Harmon | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Two appeals of cannabis projects in Santa Barbara County fell through at last week’s meeting of the California Coastal Commission, with the commission agreeing to the staff’s assertion that there was nothing wrong with either project — technically — according to how the county’s cannabis ordinance is written and executed.

Instead, this latest batch of cannabis-related appeals out of Santa Barbara — against a four-acre grow outside Carpinteria and a cannabis retail dispensary on the small beach town’s Santa Claus Lane — raised questions among several commissioners over whether the county may need to go back to the drawing board and revisit an ordinance that has caused countless conflicts between county officials, cannabis companies, and concerned citizens in the years since being implemented.

In the appeal of the latest Van Wingerden family cannabis grow — located at 3508 Via Real near the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club — Coastal Commission Chair Donne Brownsey said that “it appears there is a lot of community concern” over the number of cannabis farms in the area, and with issues that she said “are just a natural part of farming cannabis.”

She said that each time a cannabis project is appealed in Santa Barbara County, the commission is put in a “difficult spot” where commissioners are being asked to “address issues that are more appropriately addressed at the local level.”

“I think underlying all of this is really the issue with the Santa Barbara ordinance with regards to cannabis,” Brownsey said. “It seems to me that it may be time for the county to revisit this ordinance and not put the commission in a difficult spot where our inquiry really is, ‘Does this project conform with the Santa Barbara County local coastal program?’”

Commissioner Meagan Harmon, who also serves as a Santa Barbara city councilmember, joined the rest of the commission in a unanimous decision finding “no substantial issue” with the project, though she acknowledged the work and arguments laid out by appellant Jill Stassinos, who raised concerns over the effects of the growing number of cannabis projects densely packed in the area.

“I think it’s imperative we have involved citizens in our community that are taking a hard look at the way our county is evolving,” Harmon said.

In the second appeal, against the Roots cannabis dispensary on Santa Claus Lane, neighboring business owners Steve Kent and Nancy Rikalo argued that the location would cause parking and traffic problems that the county did not adequately assess, with Kent alleging that the site was “predetermined” without proper vetting.

“The county has ignored our voices, our expert evidence, and hundreds of letters of opposition submitted by neighbors during this three-year process,” Kent said.

Commissioners Harmon, Effie Turnbull-Sanders, and Dayna Bochco expressed interest in bringing the matter to another hearing in order to have a more in-depth discussion over the specific project and its effect on the area, though Harmon commented that it was likely outside of the Coastal Commission’s purview, and reported that the appellant Jana Zimmer had told her in an ex parte communication that the county may need to “revisit its local coastal program or risk its own reputation by not doing so.”

“This is so complicated,” she said. “There is so much conflict about the cannabis ordinance in our county.”

Several commissioners agreed that they have seen no adverse effects on traffic with dispensaries in their own areas, and that the commission should look at the project as a regular retail shop instead of making their decision based on their personal opinions about cannabis, assumptions of effects on traffic, or a “fear of a business being too successful,” as Commissioner Mike Wilson put it.

The commission voted 7-3 to find the appeal raised “no substantial issue” with the dispensary.

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