Screenshot of Tuesday’s Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting.


At the end of a lengthy public hearing on Tuesday, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a conditional use permit for Big River Farm, a controversial 22,000-square-foot cannabis cultivation operation in the remote Southern Humboldt community of Ettersburg.

The Planning Commission narrowly denied the project in a 4-3 vote back in September, in part due to community concern about an alleged history of dangerous criminal activity and gun violence on the property, including an alleged gunfight in 2018 and a foiled kidnapping plot in 2019.

The staff report refers to the criminal allegations against the applicant, Ivan Illiev, as “hearsay,” asserting that “speculation rather than substantial evidence was the basis of the [Planning Commission’s] decision to deny the project.” The staff report maintains that “there is no connection between the perpetrators of the alleged kidnapping plan and the applicant,” emphasizing that Illiev was the victim, not the perpetrator, of the robbery plot.

Michael Holtermann, a planner with the county’s Planning and Building, said staff had contacted the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office multiple times for additional information about criminal activity on the property but maintained that “no pertinent information was received.”

“As was pointed out by the appellant in their justification, there have been no charges filed, warrants for arrest, or convictions for the alleged gunfight or any other criminal activity associated with the cannabis operation,” Holtermann said during Tuesday’s meeting. “There does not appear to be any evidence that the alleged gunfight was connected to the applicant or the cannabis operation.”

The Planning Commission also took issue with the applicant’s history of noncompliance and illegal grading on the property. The appellant admitted that the grading occurred in 2015 before the county created a legal pathway for cannabis cultivation. The appellant maintained that the property “has not been the subject of any other violations that would indicate a past practice of non-compliance” since the county issued an interim permit for cannabis cultivation in 2018.

The Planning Commission also expressed concern that the project could impact an adjacent property owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is listed as a “potential habitat” for the Northern Spotted Owl. The appellant stated that he had met with BLM and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) staff to develop acceptable mitigation measures to protect Northern Spotted Owl nesting near the property.

The staff report notes that the project “is consistent” with the CDFW’s regulations for generator noise “in areas of ‘habitat’ or ‘potential habitat’ for the Marbled Murrelet or the Northern Spotted Owl.” 

Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo asked why staff’s recommendation included a special condition that would allow a 170-foot, rather than 600-foot, setback to the adjacent BLM property.

Planning and Building Director John Ford explained that existing county regulations do not establish “that everything has to be 600 feet” away from public lands. 


“If you’re within 600 feet, you’re required to get a special permit which allows discretion to consider the circumstances associated with public property on the adjacent property,” he said. “[T]he application has been modified from the preexisting condition to move things away from the property [line] to replant, to regrade, to go from mixed-light to outdoor and to minimize the potential disturbance to potential habitat associated with Northern Spotted Owl … [although] no owls had been identified within that holding.”

Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Steve Madrone’s questions centered around water use on the property, which is sourced from a groundwater well and supplemented by rain catchment. The project is expected to use about 219,000 gallons of water annually, with approximately 86,600 gallons of water stored in hard tanks. The staff report notes that the applicant has plans to install another 50,000-gallon storage tank on the property.

Madrone noted that the hydrologist’s original report, a lengthy 1,500-page document dated June 30, 2022, was inaccurate because the study was conducted on the wrong well.

“In July 2023, there was an addendum [added] that says all of that information in that report is wrong,” Madrone said. “The agenda report is only a page and a half, barely. In the original report, it says there’s a low likelihood of being hydrologically connected. It doesn’t mean it isn’t connected. … These kinds of discrepancies make it very difficult for us – for myself as a hydrologist – to actually try to understand what’s going on, especially when it was the wrong well where all the detail was [included]. In the correct well [report] there isn’t all that detail.”

Ford noted that both wells are on the same property. “The subsequent report, as Chair Madrone mentioned, was initially directed to an existing well that was not the well to be utilized for this [project],” he explained. “He subsequently prepared that updated report for the well that is to be utilized, [which] is approximately 785 feet west-northwest of the well site location described in the previous report.”

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn suggested that the applicant install a second water storage tank or a pond to address potential water issues on the property. “Ponds are great for a lot of reasons, wildlife and everything else,” he said. “Maybe a small pond to offset what is needed and we’ll be at 100 percent [for water storage]. Right now we’re at 65 percent.”

Steven Luu, an independent consultant representing the applicant, said Illiev has worked diligently to add additional water storage to the property, but if the board wanted him to add more “the applicant would be comfortable with additional conditions.”


Luu went back to the allegations of criminal activity on the property and reiterated that his client had never been indicted or arrested. “My client was the potential victim of a crime,” he said.

However, if it came down to it, Luu said the applicant would be willing to sell the property and the permit to someone else if that meant the project would finally be approved. “If the board has concerns about the character or disposition of the applicant, I’ve spoken with him, and … he’s comfortable making [a] condition of the approval for him to sell the property or sell the permit if that is truly the concern that the board has with the operator,” he said.

Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell was confused by the statement and said, “We don’t permit people, we’re permitting a project.”

A few neighbors reiterated their concerns with the project during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. Rod Silva and Mark Hilovsky, co-owners of a property near the project site, claimed that their tenants witnessed the alleged gunfight that occurred in 2018 and urged the board to deny the project.

“They heard a lot of gunfire, went outside, walked up their driveway to [Wilder Ridge] Road and saw cars in the applicant’s driveway and the opposite side of the road shooting at one another,” Hilovsky said. “Despite the rosy character his agent portrays of the applicant, we are more concerned about the character of the people he deals with, of which we have no control.”

Hilovsky claimed that the applicant had looked into moving his operation to Honeydew because of pushback from his neighbors in Ettersburg. “Unfortunately, due to the neighborhood opposition that never happened,” he said. “They didn’t want him either.”

A little later in the meeting, Bohn said he was on-site with county staff and the applicant when the subject of moving the operation to Honeydew came up. “Piles of cash, that never came up,” Bohn said. “What it came up to was the proliferation of grows in downtown Honeydew and the location where [it] was going to go, where they were going to move it to.”

Bohn echoed Bushnell’s sentiment that it is up to the board to approve projects, not people. “Everybody has equal rights and everything else,” he said.

Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo agreed, adding that the board has to “use the facts that have been proven to make our findings.”

“I can really empathize with a concern about having neighbor conflicts and the fears that are being expressed here,” Arroyo continued. “As I said, we really have to use the proven facts to make our determinations, and I do believe we need to apply our existing ordinance as fairly and consistently as possible. … I hope folks can appreciate that we need to apply our regulations as evenly and consistently as possible and use facts to make those determinations.”

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he generally disagreed with the Planning Commission’s findings for denial, echoing previous statements that the board should treat applicants equally. 

Following two hours of deliberation, Bohn made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation and approve the appeal, with the added conditions that the applicant must increase water storage to 100 percent in the next two years and conduct another water study.

“I guess I could [add] be a good neighbor, but I’m not gonna throw that in there,” he said.

Bushnell said she would second the motion if Bohn included a condition to require an additional inspection of the property for the next three years. Bohn agreed.

Madrone reiterated his frustration with the water study and asked Bohn to add a condition that would implement a forbearance period during the dry months, during which the applicant would not draw from his well, between July 1 and Nov. 15. He also felt the setback issue “was very problematic” but said, “If the BLM doesn’t want to push the issue, I’m not going to push it.”

Bohn said he would be willing to include a forbearance period from July 1 to Oct. 1 but Madrone said he wouldn’t vote in favor of the project unless Bohn agreed to extend the forbearance to Nov. 15. After a bit of quibbling Bohn eventually agreed.

The motion passed in a 5-0.

Board Travel Expenses

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the board considered a request, brought forth by Madrone, to review the board’s travel expense policy. As it stands, each member of the board is allocated $10,300 each fiscal year to cover expenses for interdistrict travel and other work-related trips.

Before getting into the discussion, Madrone said his intention in bringing the item forward was not to “micromanage” the board’s travel decisions but to “provide structure to our travel budget.”


“I think we all do a great job of trying to figure out how to best spend that money within our district for travel and/or attendance to conferences or whatever it might be,” he said. “What this is about is setting some policies around these issues.”

The staff report includes an accounting of each board member’s travel expenses to date, which can be found here. As one would expect, the county’s rural representatives (Bohn, Bushnell and Madrone) have used more money in the last year than their urban counterparts (Arroyo and Wilson). Since July, Madrone has used more money for travel than his fellow board members, leaving him with less than $3,000.

Madrone suggested that the board implement a few rules to ensure they don’t exceed their annual allotment, including a requirement for a board majority vote for additional funds and a quarterly review of the fund. He also suggested that outgoing board members should only be allowed to use 50 percent of their annual allotment to ensure there’s funding left for the incoming board member. 

Bushnell said she relied on Kathy Hayes, the clerk of the board, to help her keep track of her travel expenses but didn’t feel the board needed additional oversight. “I’m not really understanding what you’re wanting out of this,” she said to Madrone. “It sounds like micromanaging to me.”

He reiterated that his intent was not to micromanage the board. “Perhaps what I’ve done here is project into problems that haven’t existed,” he said. 

Arroyo said she would be happy to give her funding allocation to another board member if they needed it, adding that she assumed the extra funds were just absorbed into the General Fund.

After a bit of discussion, Madrone backed down and suggested the board revisit the subject during its annual budget review in a few months. The board agreed and voted 5-0 to not take any action on the matter.