Dozens of impassioned cannabis farmers and allied community members spoke out during Tuesday’s Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting to urge the board to shoot down an initiative that would restrict commercial cannabis cultivation across the county.
The Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative (HCRI), if approved by voters, would effectively prohibit new cannabis-growing operations across the county and impose a host of stringent rules that would forbid farms larger than 10,000 square feet, limit cultivation permits to one per person/corporation or per parcel, ban mixed-light and indoor grows, among other impacts.
The Board of Supervisors reluctantly agreed to place the initiative on the March 2024 ballot last fall. At that time, staff agreed to provide a thorough analysis of the initiative and bring it back to the board for discussion at a date uncertain.
On Tuesday, the board took its first look at staff’s analysis and explored the possibility of creating an ad hoc committee that would work with the initiative’s proponents to either modify existing county rules or find an alternative to the ballot measure.
The analysis, prepared by Planning and Building Department staff, was presented to the board during Tuesday’s meeting. It emphasized that the existing county regulations “are intended to encourage a well-regulated cannabis industry in Humboldt County.” While the initiative claims it would protect the county’s residents and natural resources from harm caused by industrial cannabis cultivation, staff argue that it would “have the opposite effect by making compliance so difficult that the legal market is rendered not viable in Humboldt County.”
Planning and Building Director John Ford highlighted numerous issues and “unintended consequences” outlined in the initiative. For example, the initiative forbids the approval of a cannabis cultivation permit that would result in multiple active permits.
“What is meant in this particular case by no approval?” Ford asked, noting that the initiative would require permits to be renewed annually. “If you’re talking about an approval, a renewal is an approval. So is the intent here that – in the context of renewal and application – a site can’t have more than one active permit and an applicant can’t have more than one active permit? In all honesty, it’s not clear what’s intended by this. It’s an unclear provision within the initiative and it makes it extremely difficult to implement and extremely problematic.”
Under the worst-case scenario, Ford said cultivators with multiple permits would have to give up all but one, adding that it would be “very difficult for [the permit holder] to completely change their business model.” Under the best-case scenario, the requirement would prevent the issuance of multiple permits to a single entity.
Ford added that the initiative would be extremely difficult to enforce – both financially and physically – because of the additional staff that would be needed to inspect “all public complaints” and conduct annual inspections required for permit renewal. He also expressed concern that the increased regulations would push cultivators back into the illegal cannabis trade.
“[Permit holders] could not install new water tanks, they could not install the solar facilities; a lot of potential environmental enhancements would not be able to be installed [under this initiative],” Ford said. “We believe that the county has been successful in allowing people to step into the legal market. Humboldt County has traditionally not been a legal market, and we can only speculate in terms of what people would do if their primary legal form of cultivation were to be taken away.”
He added that the vast majority of permit holders affected by the increased regulations would be people who were farming before legalization and stepped up to come into compliance with county and state rules.
“They came out and declared themselves to be cannabis farmers,” he said. “They gave us their names, their addresses, their phone numbers and they applied for permits and they’ve gone through the process. They’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to improve their propert[ies], to address conditions that the county has placed on them, and this [initiative] would put them in a place where potentially they couldn’t further modify their site.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn noted that the initiative stemmed from a neighborhood dispute over a 40,000-square-foot cannabis growing operation in Kneeland back in the fall of 2021. The group of disgruntled residents claimed the grow op’s hoop houses would be plainly visible from some of their homes along Barry Ridge. The group arranged a meeting with county officials at Kneeland Elementary School and, ultimately, the permit holder agreed to reduce the size of the project to 10,000 square feet.
However, the residents felt the county ought to do more to protect residents and natural resources from large-scale cultivation. The group embarked on a vigorous signature-gathering effort and last year the initiative qualified for the March 2024 ballot.
Bohn pointed to several other instances in which the county staff worked with an applicant or permit holder to address concerns brought forth by neighboring residents, noting that it’s “usually to the benefit of the neighbor more so than the applicant.” He questioned whether the formation of an ad hoc committee would make any difference.
“The system has worked up ‘til now, up ‘til we got this,” he said. “One of the items on [the agenda] is about forming an ad hoc committee to work with them. … I’m hearing that they don’t want to discuss [it]. They have their signatures [and] it’s going to the ballot. So, before we spend a lot of time putting [together] an ad hoc committee that has nowhere to go, I’m just wondering [if that is] an actuality?”
A little later in the discussion, Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell read an email that was sent the day before from one of the organizers of the initiative that confirmed the group’s intent to place the initiative on the ballot. “The initiative was agreed by 7,000-plus informed Humboldt County citizens and had more than the legal required number of signatures, as determined by the Humboldt County Elections Office, and therefore should propose for voters consideration on March 2024,” the email stated.
Had he been aware of the email, Ford said he would have amended his presentation to include a recommendation for the board “to look at our legal alternatives … if they’ve already stated that they’re not willing to have a discussion to try to reach a common mind and common understanding of what’s best for the entire county.”
Bohn reiterated the initiative is “probably unenforceable” because of the staff time required. He added that if the initiative were to pass, “it just doesn’t put a nail in the coffin, it digs the hole, names the cemetery and puts everybody in it in a mass grave.”
Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo asked how the county would process new permit applications “given that we would have met and exceeded the threshold outlined” in the initiative.
“Basically, what it allows is that any application that was complete as of the date of the filing could be finished,” Ford explained. “The permit cap … was 900 and something and we’re at 1,027 right now. … So we could not take in applications for new cultivation.”
Bushnell asked if farmers would be able to reduce the size of their cultivation sites under the ordinance. “Currently, multitudes of farms are considering reduction,” she said. “What does that look like with this initiative?”
Ford said a reduction would not require a permit modification; they would just have to contact the county. “We would then respond to the state inquiry to see if they were in good standing and in compliance based on the size that they’ve declared to us,” he said. “I don’t see that as being a complication.”
Before moving ahead to public comment, Bohn reiterated his concerns surrounding the creation of an ad hoc committee and asked to hear from the writers of the initiative. “If they say, ‘No, we’re gonna roll our dice and go right to the voters,’ that changes everything here,” he said. “If they’re not going to collaborate and we’re not going to get anywhere, make a motion as a county to come out against this and let it go to where it’s going. … But I would love to hear actualities that the writers of this initiative would even consider.”
County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes stepped in to note that the county is “not able to take a position of opposition or support” during the meeting. “Any county efforts will be to educate the public on impacts [or] pros and cons,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t represent that we will be opposing or supporting any particular initiative.”
Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Steve Madrone asked if any of the initiative’s writers were willing to speak to the board’s concerns. No one spoke up in the audience and there were already several hands raised in the virtual queue but there was no way to immediately identify the callers, so the board went ahead to public comment.
A few commenters, including Wendy Kornburg, owner and operator of Sunnabis Farms in Southern Humboldt County, were embarrassed to admit that they had signed the petition to put the initiative on the ballot without fully understanding what it would do.
“I was absolutely misled,” Kornburg said. “I was told that [it] would help small farmers. It would help us, you know, fund our road infrastructure, which of course is not true. … [The] initiative was given to people to sign without full disclosure of what it was. I also normally read things entirely and I did not this time. I will never do that again.”
Nicole Riggs, an affiliate researcher with the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, referred to the initiative as “the Karen Initiative,” and called it “as misleading as it is dangerous.”
“The [farms] that the proponents [of the initiative] say they care about are the small permitted farmers,” she said. “Permitted farmers follow the rules. They comply with water storage. They pay fees. They have inspections. … The [staff] report has stated that 90 percent of active farms have no violations. Farmers are motivated to comply, but ask yourself: Will this initiative cause the cost of compliance to be greater than the cost of non-compliance?”
Matt Kurth, the owner of Humboldt Cannabis Tours, predicted that the initiative “would destroy cannabis tourism within one year” because it requires multiple permits.
“Anyone who has a tourism permit – of which we only have three right now – as soon as they have to renew their permit they will be forced to choose between their cannabis permit [and] their tourism permit, which means they’ll lose their tourism permit. … If we want to do cannabis tourism at all in the future here in Humboldt County, that means this initiative can’t pass.”
Riley Morrison, cannabis farmer and director of the Willow Creek Community Services District, urged the initiative’s proponents, Betsy Watson and Mark Thurmond, to withdraw the ballot measure and work with cultivators to “develop policy that works for the community environment.”
“If this initiative passes, it will destroy my ability to implement my business plan and will wither our farm down to its bones,” he told the board. “My wife and I … designed our farm business with a phased build approach, allowing buffers through poor market conditions and time to accumulate the capital to develop. … Over the next two years, we plan to build a barn allowing a new roofline, increased solar collection [and] develop farm stay and ecological tourism components. If this initiative is passed, this type of development will be considered cultivation expansion, requiring us to reduce our cultivation by 65 percent to implement rendering the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested … useless and a total loss.”
Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, blasted the initiative proponents for failing to show up to Tuesday’s meeting, claiming “they have circumvented the collaborative process.”
“The fact that they are not here, that they have not called in, that they’re not here to defend their document is contemptuous,” she said. “They’re not here. We are here. We’ve been here with you and we need your help. We need your support. We need you to oppose this initiative. We need you to educate the public. We need ongoing education because clearly, the public does not understand what we have been through for the last eight years.”
Approximately 50 community members spoke during the two-hour public comment period, all of whom spoke against the initiative in one way or another.
Returning to board deliberations, Arroyo said she received an email from at least one of the proponents of the initiative during the break who said they could not attend the meeting because they were snowed in and had “limited connectivity.” She said they “expressed willingness to meet and talk” through some of the aforementioned issues, but “neither of them overtly stated that they would be willing to consider withdrawing the initiative.”
Arroyo also acknowledged that some people may have felt misled by the petition, but emphasized that “there are plenty of people who sat down and read the initiative before signing.”
“With more than 7,000 signers, surely some people understood the impact that this would have,” she said. “And I’ve heard from folks who did not feel comfortable coming into this room to express a different position. I think it’s worth acknowledging that there are people who might have felt differently who didn’t want to be here today because it was too intimidating.”
A disgruntled murmur could be heard from the crowd and Arroyo said she didn’t “need any heckling from the crowd.” She reiterated that she was “just voicing what I have heard from residents who have not felt comfortable entering the conversations” and said she looked forward to further collaboration.
Hayes reminded the board that efforts to establish an ad hoc committee “should not be construed as advocacy one way or the other.” The ad hoc committee would serve as a way to continue engagement between the county and the initiative proponents. She added that the board could “choose to take a position of support or opposition” to the initiative at a future meeting.
Bohn emphasized that he is “110 percent opposed to [the initiative] as it sits right now” and made a motion to appoint Arroyo and Ford to the ad hoc committee. Bushnell also expressed interest in sitting on the committee. Bohn obliged and amended his motion to include Bushnell. Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson seconded the motion.
After a bit more discussion, the board unanimously approved the motion in a 5-0 vote.