At the end of a lengthy public hearing on Tuesday, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2, narrowly denying an appeal of the Planning Commission’s Jan. 21 approval of a controversial cannabis cultivation and processing project near the remote Southern Humboldt community of McCann.
The project, developed by Rolling Meadow Ranch, LLC, calls for 5.73 acres of mixed-light cultivation and processing facilities located in four distinct cultivation areas in up to 16 greenhouses, with a total project footprint of 8.5 acres.
In a story last week we described how the proposal was met with significant community opposition, fueling an ongoing debate about whether industrial-scale commercial cannabis operations belong in the remote, rural corners of the county.
On Tuesday, the board took up that debate, with Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone and Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson voicing concerns about fire response challenges and potential environmental impacts. Both wound up voting against denial of the appeal (and thus against the project).
Their fellow supervisors said they shared some of those concerns — particularly about the project’s location outside of all nearby fire districts — but after crafting a list of five new conditions of approval, the three-person majority voted to deny the appeal, clearing the way for the project to commence.
The appeal, which was filed by three neighboring property owners, argued that the applicant should be required to complete a full environmental impact report (EIR) to more fully analyze a range of potential impacts. For example, the appellants questioned whether the project’s three wells could provide the projected annual demand of 4,628,200 gallons of water without impacting the nearby Eel River. They also questioned the adequacy of access roads and biological surveys and argued that fire mitigation measures were insufficient.
At yesterday’s meeting, Senior Planner Meghan Ryan laid out the details of the appeal and defended county staff’s work in preparing an initial study and mitigated negative declaration (MND), a document that says all potential environmental impacts from the project can be mitigated to less-than-significant levels. Public Works had deemed the access roads sufficient, she said, and evidence strongly indicates that the deep groundwater wells are not connected to to the Eel.
In short, she said, the project meets all the requirements of the county’s Commercial Medical Marijuana Land Use Ordinance, aka Ordinance 1.0, which governs this application.
Jason Holder, the attorney hired by the appellants, argued otherwise, saying the environmental review for the project “does not pass muster” under the California Environmental Quality Act due to errors and omissions in the MND.
During the public comment period, more than 20 people called or Zoomed in, with all but one urging the board to uphold the appeal and deny the project.
Debra Lake, representing the Fruitland Ridge Volunteer Fire Protection District, said that while the project is located outside of her district’s response area, no other first-responder agency is any closer. With long response times, the fire risk is “definitely a danger” to nearby residents, she said.
Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), said, “What’s obvious and at the heart of this is the desire of this county to discourage cannabis production in the hills. …This project is too big and too impactful for the location where it’s being proposed.”
Others reiterated concerns about the fire risk, roads, water supply and cumulative impacts.
After the public comment period, Planning and Building Director John Ford said that public opposition alone can’t be the basis for denying a project. There must be fact-based evidence of a significant adverse impact, and he said the appellants had failed to provide that.
The board then embarked on a lengthy Q-and-A with staff. Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, in her first public hearing since taking office a few months ago, agreed with Wilson and others about the fire risk and asked whether the applicant would be willing to put a first-responder on staff. Ford said he’d spoken with Andrew Machata, the owner of Rolling Meadow Ranch, LLC, and he had expressed a willingness to do just that.
Bushnell said she’d feel better if that were added as a condition of approval, along with a provision calling for more rainwater catchment.
Madrone, on the other hand, said he had “a lot of heartburn over these large industrial grows out in the middle of nowhere,” adding, “I strongly feel an EIR is probably required on this project.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn suggested that the appellant should be required to provide a deposit to the Fruitland Ridge Fire District as collateral for the expense of responding to a fire. Machata has agreed to purchase a water tender so his workers can respond to any onsite fires themselves.
Ultimately the board directed staff to add new five conditions of approval, three of which will bolster fire preparedness. Another will require additional rain catchment while the fifth requires a plan to prevent spread of sudden oak death.
Bushnell thanked her constituents for their feedback and said that while she shares some of their concerns, she believes Machata followed county regulations with this project. Any change in approach to industrial cannabis projects like this one should be made at the policy level, she said.
Bohn made the motion to reject the appeal and approve the conditional use permits for the project. Bushnell seconded the motion, and in the roll-call vote they were joined by Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass.