A battle over wine and cannabis in Santa Barbara County, pitting neighbor against neighbor, is coming to a head. On June 30, a report from a grand jury tasked with monitoring local government issued a scathing report criticizing the county board for its mismanagement of the county’s cannabis production.
“The jury believes the Board of Supervisors, in their hubris, failed the people of Santa Barbara County,” the report stated. “Now they must amend the cannabis ordinances to regain the people’s trust.”
Santa Barbara County adopted some of the most lenient regulations for commercial cannabis farming in California and has seen an explosion in production in the past four years—last year, the county was home to 35 percent of the state’s licensed cannabis acreage. As a result, locals, particularly vintners, have grappled with cannabis’ impact on the area.
In April, a nonprofit made up of more than 200 vintners, farmers and homeowners, dubbed the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, filed suit against the county’s board of supervisors, citing what the coalition considers a lack of ordinances regulating cannabis production and a faulty licensing program which has allowed farmers to stack licenses and create some of the largest cannabis grows in the state. The suit aims to cut down on the number of unpermitted cannabis farms and stop the board from issuing further permits by challenging the environmental reviews that have led to permit approvals.
“Pursuing legal action is not fun, nor is it a place we wanted to go, but it’s necessary,” Debra Eagle, a board member for the coalition and general manager for Alma Rosa winery, told Wine Spectator. Eagle felt like the board of supervisors was ignoring its citizens.
The grand jury finding is independent of the lawsuit, which has not gone to court yet. But it affirms the vintners’ claims, stating that the board must regain the people’s trust by enacting extensive modifications. “We’re thrilled that the grand jury substantiated what we believed to be true,” said Eagle.
Now the county supervisors are considering tighter regulations. But will it be enough to satisfy residents and help the local wine industry?
When California’s Proposition 64 passed in 2016, the state let local officials decide how to regulate production and sales with temporary licenses. Santa Barbara County supervisors opted to allow farmers that said they were growing medicinal cannabis to add their name to a registry, which would grandfather them in as legal growers and give them temporary cultivation licenses. The growers did not have to provide any evidence, however. In fact, county supervisors rejected a measure recommended by the planning commission to have staff ask for documentation and research the veracity of the statements.
California’s temporary licenses expired at the end of 2019. Cannabis farmers now either have to win land-use permit approval from their respective county governments or apply for a provisional permit to continue growing for another year.
According to Michael Benedict, co-founder of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, the board of supervisors has been playing fast and loose with land-use laws and issuing permits without proper planning. “Plan first and then issue permits,” he said. “The [cannabis] farmers are taking advantage of a loophole, but it’s not their fault; the board has enabled this.”
“I agree with the critique that the rules for medicinal cannabis were loose,” said Das Williams, first district supervisor for the county, noting that they were created before he joined the board in early 2017. He said he was unhappy with how much cannabis was established when he took office but is pleased that the permitting process has begun, and noted that those that don’t meet standards will be out of business.
But Williams was one of two supervisors called out by the grand jury, though not by name. He and supervisor Steve Lavagnino were the sole members of an ad-hoc committee that devised the current permitting process. Normally, land-use policy starts with large public meetings and county planning staff, who then make recommendations to the board. But in this case, the grand jury wrote, policy recommendations were hashed out by the ad-hoc committee, which then presented it to the full board.
The Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis points to the initial Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Cannabis Land-Use Ordinance and Licensing Program as proof of the flaws in the process.
Published: July 27, 2020
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News