Nearly all of 25 speakers in a packed board meeting room urged Trinity County supervisors last week to expand the county’s commercial cannabis cultivation program by raising the license cap beyond the current number of 530 or eliminating the cap altogether.
It was called as a special board meeting to provide direction to staff regarding the future of a draft Environmental Impact Report for the county’s cannabis program.
There were two options.
The first option was to modify the current draft EIR to include an increase in the license cap or eliminate it. The county’s consulting CEQA attorney Derek Cole advised that doing so would constitute a major change, requiring a rewrite of the project description and recirculation for public review and comment, a process expected to cost at least another $100,000 just to the consultant, not including additional legal or staff time, and possibly take an additional year if not longer to bring to certification.
The second option was to move forward on the current project with minor revisions to produce a final EIR by the middle of this year and complete the cannabis program ordinance amendments recommended in it during the 2020 growing season.
Planning Director Kim Hunter recommended the second option in the interests of time and costs, both to the county and to the licensed growers. Without a certified EIR in place to streamline the process, each site is technically subject to individual review under CEQA at the applicant’s expense. Current applicants including those up for annual renewals are being asked to provide that now due to a backlog in the Planning Department and reduced staffing.
After nearly three hours of public input, almost all of which advocated for Option 1, the board voted 4-1 in favor of Option 2, meaning the EIR process will go forward with final hearings by the Trinity County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors that is ultimately responsible for certifying the document.
The current draft EIR was initiated in December 2018 through a process that included hiring Ascent Environmental, Inc. as consultant to the Planning Department. It involved public meetings throughout the county and additional meetings after the public review period was technically closed. The county’s current contract with Ascent expired in December 2019 and will require an extension now that the decision has been made to go forward with the existing draft.
The number of licenses Trinity County has currently issued for cultivation is approximately 314, but fluctuates daily, while an estimated 4,000 sites are operating illegally in the county, according to the draft EIR.
The draft document examines four alternatives: one ‘no project’ option that leaves individual applicants on their own to perform CEQA analysis; a second that limits new sites only to those already disturbed or developed; a third reducing the license number from 530 to 280; and a fourth restricting new sites to existing disturbance, reducing the cap from 530 to 280 and requiring all new cultivation to be conducted within an enclosed structure providing ventilation and odor control systems.
Except for the ‘no project’ alternative, the other three all preclude any new cultivation within priority watersheds designated by the State Water Resources Control Board including the upper, middle and lower South Fork Trinity River, and the upper and lower Hayfork Creek.
The draft EIR examines the environmental impacts of the program and recommends 62 mitigation measures to reduce those impacts to less than significant. The alternatives are still subject to minor alterations as the final certification hearings, followed by ordinance amendments, go forward. Recommended mitigation measures may also still be amended.
Possible changes considered to be minor include allowing for multi-year licenses; establishing a process for designating new opt-out areas where cultivation will not be allowed; exclusion areas due to zoning, topographic, hydrologic or geologic concerns; and revisions to cultivation setback variance provisions.
The question to the Board of Supervisors last week came out of public input during previous sessions held last fall in Hayfork and Weaverville where growers largely trashed the document and asked for a rewrite to include an alternative that would lift the license cap, claiming it would encourage more to join the licensing program.
Most held to that request last week though a few said they have concerns about how any changes in direction at this point would affect their ability to renew licenses for this growing season. Some argued that the draft EIR is overreaching into issues already subject to state regulation and the county should default to state regulations since it lacks the expertise and planning staff needed to manage the program.
Joseph Bower representing himself and SAFE (Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment) said the board should recognize “that it’s a failed program. Only about five percent of the industry you have regulated. Those are licensed ones. This is not viable. Throw the whole thing out, remove the cap, give everybody a year to come forward, pay for a provisional license and then start an EIR for the whole county. This is a dead end, analyzing a failed program that leaves out 95 percent of the growers. Give them a year to show up with money and an application, then cut it off. Throw out what you started and get something that will work to stop the environmental degradation that’s happened here. We have a poisoned county because of the county’s lack of enforcement against the illegal growers.”
“Giving growers another year to sign up? What were the last four years about? Enforcement is coming I think. It is picking up, but it takes time. The black market — that’s on them. This is for the regulated market,” argued Terrence Mines of Junction City.
Karla Avila of Hyampom said the board’s only choice is to rewrite the project description, arguing it is too flawed and that over-regulation is one reason why more growers don’t want into the program. She added that if the county had retail cannabis options available there would be more activity “and we can’t give up on the legal businesses still going after four years. Licensing addresses the cumulative impacts. We cannot shut it down at 280.”
Others pointed out numerous errors and discrepancies in the draft EIR they believe does not reflect current conditions as they exist locally. They urged better use of local data instead of data and assumptions from other parts of California. Some argued that none of it matters and mitigation measures are flawed if the document fails to address law enforcement needs. Others worried about potential litigation down the road if the final document is flawed, and what that would do to the county’s program.
Andrew Franklin of Junction City argued the license cap “is silly if you’re trying to bring people into the program. This is Trinity County. There are outlaws and you’re never going to get everybody, but reduce the costs and you’ll get more. There aren’t a lot of economic engines in this county and where is retail? We really need to get to that.”
“This is leaving me at a loss. I’m even more unsure what to expect about licensing for this year,” said Adrian Keys of Hayfork who argued Option 2 would seem to “get us into licensing faster, but it locks in some bizarre assumptions. Maybe 530 isn’t the worst thing if there’s a provision for a conditional use permit later. We’ve barely cracked 50 percent of the licenses we have. I don’t know who to believe anymore. Finish the project and worry about the people that aren’t in the program later. It’s mind numbing how much time and energy this is taking out of our lives.”
Arguing there’s “no way to make a silk purse out of this cow’s ear,” John Brower of Junction City urged the board to go with Option 1 without delay and devote the resources necessary “to get it right. Re-draft this thing.”
Some urged the board to hire a different consultant to begin the process anew instead of extending the expired contract with Ascent.
The board’s 4-1 vote to go with Option 2 and finish the current process was opposed by Sup. Bobbi Chadwick who said, “We keep saying we want public input, but they feel it doesn’t matter when they do comment.”
Sup. Jeremy Brown said he doesn’t think any voice has gone unheard, but his concern is for the growers caught up in this year’s uncertainty over their license applications. He said it’s tempting to want to start the process over in search of a more perfect outcome that’s more respectful of the cannabis industry, but he’s afraid that could stretch into three or four years “re-debating everything” and placing license holders in jeopardy until all is resolved.
“Option 2 is the right option to streamline the process for growers and not throw off their timing for a state license by a couple of months,” he said.
Sup. Judy Morris said she had a problem with the alternatives that would reduce the license cap from 530 to 280 and the board agreed to provide direction to increase that back to 530 in at least the second alternative.
The board also directed, as suggested by several speakers, that a section be added to the draft EIR that explains the benefits of the licensing program and promotes the benefits from the cannabis industry.
Sup. Keith Groves asked if cultivation can continue this year while renewals are being processed. Attorney Derek Cole said the county has allowed that, “but with trepidation. We are allowing folks to grow, but the process is not complete so there is uncertainty and yes, they are more vulnerable to lawsuits.”
“I’ve been at this for 10 years and heard a lot of the same arguments. It’s been hard fought, but to just shanghai the whole process now is a disservice to the hundreds of people that have participated in this program,” Groves said.
Regarding the suggestion that the county just default to state regulations, Cole said in theory that could be done, but that going with “a state-centric program that’s less robust on local issues like traffic, odor and water issues would be a CEQA process in itself, and if we go that route, it’s probably going to require a whole new EIR.”
He added that “taking time to do it right versus impacts to growers for the next two years while we redraft and recirculate, our recommendation as staff is that Option 2 is in the best interests of the program and all growers intending to go forward this year.”
“I’ve never seen a perfect EIR. You take the best data you can get and you do the analysis. It covers our needs. It will not be perfect, but we do want to get it right,” said Planning Director Kim Hunter who added her department does not have the staff capacity to process the individual environmental studies for over 300 license applications and renewals.
Following the board’s final vote last week, Sup. Groves asked for an agenda item at an upcoming board meeting to consider an urgency ordinance creating a license moratorium in a proposed opt-out area around Rush Creek Estates “since this process is taking so long.”