Originally published February 8, 2018 at 12:00a.m., updated February 9, 2018 at 12:16p.m.
Cannabis growers anxiously paced the fourth floor of the County Administration Building on Tuesday afternoon. The fate of their lucrative farms was on the line as county supervisors wrangled over the future of cannabis operations in Santa Barbara County. It was the kind of thing that used to happen in back rooms suffocated by cigar smoke. Now it occurs over 27 exhaustive public hearings where emotions tend to run high.
By 7:30 Tuesday night, though, most had breathed a sigh of relief.
The supervisors voted 4-1 to pass a cannabis ordinance. They decided to limit the number of potential retail pot shops to eight, with no more than two in each supervisorial district. And they voted to place a general tax on the June ballot to fund enforcement, among other expenses. Supervisor Peter Adam was the sole opponent.
“We were really far apart,” said 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who had been the toughest critic of the whole process. “[But] this is a time of compromise. I feel like I didn’t get everything that I really wanted, but there were a lot of good things that came from this.”
To strengthen regulations, the county supervisors banned outdoor cultivation 1,500 feet from residential zones or schools. They banned all cannabis businesses within 750 feet of a school or “sensitive receptors.” To weaken regulations, they eased restrictions for distribution licenses and decided not to require odor abatement for large outdoor grows.
On Tuesday, growers spent much of the meeting poring over color-coded maps to see if their cannabis farms could be wiped out by the supervisors’ actions, which fluctuated over the eight-hour meeting. In the end, it is not known exactly how many cannabis farms would be affected by the new rules, but county insiders speculated it would not be many.
It’s worth noting that Santa Barbara County has so far received the second-highest number of temporary licenses issued by the State of California. One Santa Barbara cannabis business, Central Coast Farmers Market Management, has the most small-cultivator licenses in the entire state, according to the Sacramento Business Journal. Still, growers stressed Tuesday that marijuana makes up just a fraction of the tens of thousands of acres of berries, wine grapes, broccoli, and other traditional crops.
While there was some agreement Tuesday, the county supervisors have not even started arguing about whether cannabis is considered an “agricultural product.” If it’s not, cannabis can only be grown on at most five acres of land in the Williamson Act, which provides tax breaks for landowners who do not develop for 10 years. By one estimate, 44 percent of cannabis farmland is under the Williamson Act. The supervisors will debate this issue in March.
The supervisors were not the only ones who appeared to change their minds on Tuesday. Just a few years ago, no one would have expected cannabis farmers to be cheering for Christian conservative Andy Caldwell, who is the president of COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business). Caldwell said there were “problems with pot” but acknowledged that California voters voted for it. He called for the supervisors to reduce restrictions that could set a “troubling precedent” for other agricultural commodities.
Tax watchdog Joe Armendariz said the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association would “never” support a general tax. His beef was that a general tax does not require the lawmakers to specify exactly how they will spend the money.
Exactly where the eight approved retail outlets will end up remains to be seen. A pair of Isla Vista activists, Spencer Brandt and Jay Freeman, showed up to lobby for at least one retail storefront to be located in I.V. “Personally I have had the experience of smoking marijuana laced” with other substances, Brandt said, that sent him into a “fit of rage.” With legal cannabis, he added, “Everyone is more safe.”