Merritt Perry, interim city manager and public works director for the City of Fortuna, addresses the board on Tuesday.

The City of Fortuna has made it abundantly clear that it wants nothing to do with Humboldt County’s (in)famous cash crop. It banned all weed businesses within city limits and lobbied the board to keep the industry as far away as possible. One Fortuna councilmember, Dean Glaser, even said at a meeting last month that the county is “supporting evil” by sanctioning commercial cannabis activities.

But the city doesn’t control land uses outside its own borders, and on Tuesday, with a 4-1 vote, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors overrode objections from Fortuna staff and neighbors to approve a nonprofit indoor cultivation facility on a parcel near the Rohnerville Airport — outside city limits but within Fortuna’s “sphere of influence,” meaning it’s in an area where the city offers services and may one day annex.

Back in September the Humboldt County Planning Commission approved the Conditional Use Permits and Special Permits necessary to allow Humboldt Boutique Gardens to develop and operate the facility, which is slated to include 8,560 square feet of indoor cultivating, processing and nursery facilities. 

On Oct. 1 the Fortuna City Council voted unanimously to appeal that decision to the Board of Supervisors. City staff and nearby residents have expressed concerns about odor, traffic, water quality and crime, but the Planning Commission found that the project applicant, Humboldt Boutique Gardens President Ian Herndon, adequately planned to mitigate those impacts.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Fortuna Interim City Manager and Public Works Director Merritt Perry asked the board to reverse that decision. “We feel that although the City’s been heard, it hasn’t really been listened to,” he said.

Perry argued that both the Planning Commission and county staff were misinterpreting the applicable zoning code, and that they’d failed to protect neighbors of the project. City staff presented a petition signed by 252 area residents opposed to the project.

In response, Herndon gave a lengthy and detailed presentation of his own, citing various particulars of county and city planning documents and enumerating his efforts to mitigate all negative impacts, including charcoal filtration systems for the smell, a contract with Advance Security Systems for public safety, and plans to divert delivery trucks away from the adjacent Drake Hill Road to reduce traffic impacts.

“Our objective is to be a good, clean, quiet neighbor,” Herndon said.

During public comment, a number of neighbors spoke against the project, as did Fortuna Mayor Sue Long, who suggested that the county has ignored Fortuna’s pleas. “You guys told us you’d look out for our city,” she said.

These opponents were outnumbered by supporters of the Humboldt Boutique Gardens project. Arcata environmental lawyer Paul Hagen said all of Fortuna’s concerns are addressed in the project’s environmental report, and since the parcel is outside Fortuna’s city limits, the county has jurisdiction.

Humboldt County Senior Administrative Analyst Sean Quincey, speaking as an individual, vouched for Herndon personally and called his endeavor “a model project.”

When the matter came back to the board for discussion, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson took issue with some of the arguments Perry had made about zoning restrictions and suggested there may be some inherent prejudice toward cannabis.

“I’m not gonna break into the culture war of all this,” he said. “This is all about whether this is good planning or not.” On that front, Wilson acknowledged that he had some concerns about traffic impacts.

Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell spoke at length, expressing sympathy for neighbors who object to the project while also standing up for the cannabis industry generally. 

“I am not influenced an iota — in fact it kind of gets my back up — [to hear] inflammatory language about growers,” Fennell said. “I really think this is an industry we should support.”

But she quickly went back to the concerns of neighbors, saying their lack of happiness should be a factor in the permitting decision. 

Wilson pushed back on that reasoning. “This is a legal process,” he said. “People’s happiness is an interesting threshold” for making fact-based findings. “This is a hearing, not just a political process. We have to follow what we believe to be the law.” Wilson said he agreed with staff’s recommendation to approve the project.

Ultimately, the rest of the board, save Fennell, agreed, and Fortuna’s appeal was denied.