Residents of the Polo Condos have complained for years about the pungent smell of pot coming from Island Breeze, a two-acre cannabis greenhouse operation, shown here across from the condo entrance. | Credit: Melinda Burns

Island Breeze Farms, a two-acre cannabis greenhouse operation across from the Polo Condos in the Carpinteria Valley, must revise its odor control plans to include state-of-the-art air filters known as carbon “scrubbers,” the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission said Wednesday.

Voting 4-0, with Vice Chair Laura Bridley absent, the commission voted to continue the hearing to October 2 so that the operators of Island Breeze could revise their plans. The current operation relies on a perfumed “misting” system to mask the pungent smell of pot wafting out of the greenhouse roof vents.

“The only thing that really works is carbon scrubbers, so it amazes me that today we’re still discussing whether we use carbon scrubbers or not,” said Commissioner John Parke, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley and the wine country west of Buellton. “… I’m never going to vote for another cannabis project again that doesn’t have carbon scrubbers.”

Carbon scrubbers imported from the Netherlands and tested in the valley have been shown to remove, on average, 84 percent of the smell of greenhouse cannabis before it escapes into the outside air. About 70 acres, or less than half of the 157 acres of greenhouse cannabis approved for zoning permits in the valley, are equipped with or slated for these or other models of scrubbers. The county has not mandated their use across-the-board, and misting systems remain widespread.

At the hearing, Stacey Wooten, a consultant for Island Breeze, told the commission that county inspectors had failed to detect cannabis odor at the property line during two visits in recent months. But, she said, “We will agree to any additional odor conditions that your commission sets forth.”

The cannabis operation, formerly a cut-flowers and orchid business, is on a 10-acre property at 3376 Foothill Road owned by Island View Ranch. The property is registered in state and county records to Robyn Whatley of Thousand Oaks and Lois Von Morganroth of Ventura. It includes the Island View Nursery and a wholesale nursery business. Whatley is the CEO of Island Breeze.

Island Breeze Farms, shown at the bottom left, is at 3376 Foothill Road, across the street from 139 homes at the Polo Condos. Vista Verde Farms, shown at the top left on Via Real, is not yet in operation. | Credit: Courtesy

That ‘Déjà Vu’ Feeling

The project was at the commission Wednesday on appeal from an over-the-counter approval last year by the county planning department. The Polo Condos homeowners’ association, representing 139 condominiums next to the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club at the western edge of the valley, filed the appeal.

Along with several other neighbors on Foothill, association members asked the commission to deny the Island Breeze project, saying that the smell of pot wafting into their homes, even with their windows closed and the air conditioning on, was affecting their health. They said it caused their eyes to burn, made them feel nauseated, and triggered their migraine headaches. They noted that the current “grow,” which operates in about one-third of the greenhouse space at Island Breeze, would likely expand to full production if and when a zoning permit is approved.

“If the odor is already what it is now, we can’t imagine what it will be like, once they can grow more,” Jim Mannoia, the association president, said.

Roz Robertson, a 30-year resident at the Polo Condos, said, “We can smell the cannabis, especially at dusk. I have had breast cancer and both of my children have asthma, so it really is a serious concern for us all.”

Robertson and others noted that in addition to Island Breeze, cannabis greenhouses without scrubbers near the Polo Condos included G&K Produce and K&G Flowers, eight acres at 3561 Foothill; and Autumn Brands and Ocean Hill Farms, 10 acres at 3615 Foothill. (Vista Verde Farms, approved for 13 acres of cannabis at 3450 Via Real, just south of the Polo Condos, is not yet in operation.)

“I smell cannabis all the way from our condo to the high school,” Robertson said. “I find that reprehensible, to have young people exposed to that on an ongoing basis.”

Robyn Geddes, an association board member, said, “Letting this happen where we live is just a downgrade…. Fenced-off cannabis farms, what’s the appeal?”

But only Commissioner Michael Cooney, who represents the valley, said he was ready to deny the Island Breeze project on Wednesday. And Cooney said he would not likely change his mind on October 2.

“I want to signal publicly that I would be very unlikely to support any project, no matter what the efforts were to mask or bind or defeat the odors within this grow,” he said.

Cooney said he was getting a “déjà vu” feeling.

“It’s concerning to me that the appellants are telling me their stories, but we’ve not been able to convince other than a few growers that the best available control technology is something we feel should be a part of every project,” he said.

After the hearing, Geddes said that a requirement for scrubbers at Island Breeze would be “sort of a victory.”

“I don’t know how much we can control,” he said. “It’s going to be an industrial landscape.”

Polo Condos residents say the smell of pot regularly permeates their homes, even when their windows are closed and the air conditioning is on. | Credit: Melinda Burns

Lawsuit Dismissed

Part of the Polo Condos appeal concerned a lawsuit that the county filed against Island View Ranch and Island Breeze in 2021, alleging that the cannabis greenhouse operators were “creating a continuous public nuisance” and engaging in “unfair competition” by operating without a county zoning permit or business license.

It was the county’s first and only public nuisance lawsuit against a cannabis operation. But the suit was dismissed this May, after a settlement agreement was reached. (County officials did not respond to a reporter’s request this week for information on the terms of the agreement.)

Deputy County Counsel Callie Kim told the commission that the lawsuit was not about odor, but rather about Island Breeze’s status as a “legal, non-conforming” operator. The county, she said, had obtained “additional evidence” confirming that status. Under county rules, operators who had been growing medicinal marijuana before early 2016 could sign an affidavit to that effect. They were then allowed to continue cultivating under “legal, non-conforming” status, so long as they applied for zoning permits.

The Polo Condos association contended that the Island Breeze affidavit had been falsified; but county planners said Wednesday that the Chief Executive Office had reviewed it and found nothing amiss.

“It’s over, from a legal standpoint,” said Josh Lynn, an attorney for Island Breeze. “This firm has complied with the law.”

Island Breeze is one of the last cannabis appeals still pending out of 95 appeals of 63 projects that have been filed with the commission and county Board of Supervisors since 2018. Most were filed because of odor complaints, and most were resolved in favor of the growers. The yearly cost to the county of these appeals, which are not fully covered by growers’ fees, is $370,000.

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

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