Despite a few rolled eyes, sneaky scoffs, and knowing stares, the atmosphere at Santa Barbara County’s environmental scoping meeting on July 27 was mostly calm and collected, if not quite submissive. The meeting’s topic attracted many vehemently concerned about it, all voicing their fears about cannabis cultivation in the area.
Held in the Santa Maria Betteravia Government Center with about 40 people in attendance, at least 10 members of the community spoke out about the water needs of grow operations, the smell of marijuana fields, the traffic that grow farms would attract, and the potential noise it will bring to the county’s much-cherished peace and quiet.
A few cultivators joined the fray in an attempt to alleviate apprehensions the public may have about cannabis cultivation in Santa Barbara. Walter Taylor, a county resident, had this to say, “I want to point out that cannabis is a crop and it is a profitable crop. There are all kinds of ways for cannabis growers to show they are better than previously believed to be.”
The gathering was an opportunity for public discussion. Locals could share their concerns, ask questions, and debate issues they feel need addressing in the county’s Cannabis Land Use Ordinance and Licensing Program Environment Impact Report, which is necessary for compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.
The aim of the EIR is to analyze possible effects of the county’s proposed marijuana regulations on the environment, which is in line with a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed in June, in the Medical and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act. The act merges California’s medical and recreational marijuana laws into a single regulatory system, outlines a process for state-local licensure, and establishes a tax plan.
However, local jurisdictions retain their rights to make their own marijuana laws. They can choose if they want to ban cultivation or to regulate it, and they can implement reasonable laws for personal cultivation. With this right, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors is directing employees to develop comprehensive regulations for cultivation, and the environmental review process is underway.
Although the county has yet to finalize any licensing or zoning decisions, on July 12 this year, it submitted a notice of its intention to prepare and scope an Environmental Impact Report. County employees drafted a broad, preliminary report in an attempt to get public input. Members of the community did just that, and the debate sparked much input indeed.
The Tepusquet Community Crisis Committee sat in the front row, all wearing purple visors. In the short three-minute-per-person time allowed to it, the Tepusquet Committee completed its mission statement after every one of its members spoke on the issue of marijuana crops in the Tepusquet Canyon. They feel ignored in the planning process, and have concerns about the environmental impact of cannabis crops on the land around their homes.
Despite many rebuttals from local marijuana farmers at the gathering, the Crisis Committee stood firm in its resolve. It claims that marijuana crops require huge amounts of water, and because Tepusquet does not have its own natural water basin, growers will have to make use of water wells, most of which are already running dry throughout the canyon.
There are also concerns that fields of marijuana crops would attract more traffic to the only winding, two-lane road leading through Tepusquet, causing congestion issues, such as evacuation problems in the event of future fires. According to Crisis Committee members, these environmental factors warrant the county setting strict limits on the number of marijuana cultivators permitted in the Tepusquet area.
Other county residents had different concerns, such as Hunter Jameson. At the meeting, he rose the issue of allowing storefronts to sell cannabis legally for medical and recreational use. He believes storefronts should remain banned, and that the county should prohibit “pot clubs,” where folk can use weed legally and publicly, in much the same way that drinkers do at bars.
According to Jameson, pot clubs would pose a real danger to highway safety, as patrons would still need to “drive home after stumbling out stoned.” Besides these issues, Jameson fears that legalizing cannabis would not thwart the black market, but rather that it would increase illegal trade and encourage use among minors. Many audience members were nodding agreeably to his comments.
In Jameson’s words to the Sun, he said, “Overall, I think legalizing cannabis was a very bad idea. I am very sorry the voters approved that.” Others seemed less inclined to make a stand. One small-vineyard farmer said that wells are drying up one after the other in rural Santa Barbara County, despite agricultural cultivation being one of the area’s major economic forces.
Still another stood up to say that he would prefer the community be less judgmental and more open-minded about cannabis farming, as farmers are getting permits in order to cultivate legally, instead of hiding from the law and conducting illegal activities. One grower, using John as an alias, later told the Sun that there were clear parallels between the county’s vineyard history and current-day marijuana.
John had this to say, “The County has an interesting opportunity to brand its cannabis products locally, in much the same way as wine branding. In turn, this would bring attention and profit to the area.” Green Flash Advisors’ managing director, Bruce Watkins, along with his partners, recently purchased several acres of Tepusquet land that he plans to use for the cultivation of cannabis.
Because the county’s microclimate is ideal for natural marijuana cultivation, Watkins says that growers would have no need for energy-wasting equipment, such as ultraviolent lighting. Additionally, the area is one of few close to Southern California where it is still relatively inexpensive to purchase land. Being close to Santa Maria is yet another advantage, as it is in close proximity to readily available equipment.
Watkins filed a permit to dig a ell in the Tepusquet area when he visited last summer. According to him, that well has a depth of thousands of feet, and despite the drought, it is pumping water at a rate of 100 gallons every minute. He told the Sun, “We will have water to grow. The challenge has been a lack of information. There is sufficient data to lay every concern to rest.”