Though several neighbors spoke against the commercial marijuana grow in their vicinity, the Trinity County Planning Commission voted 3-2 on May 9 to reject an appeal of a Planning Director’s decision to issue a one-year renewal of a commercial cannabis cultivation license to an existing grower on property located north of Weaverville off Trinity Dam Boulevard.
The appellant was a neighbor, Steve Rhodehouse, who indicated he had support from 70 other residents in the area of First Left Road, Goa Way and Rush Creek Estates. The license applicant was James Cook whose 15 acres of property are located on First Left Road where the zoning is Unclassified and the General Plan land use designation is Rural Residential.
Cook has been operating under a county-issued cultivation license since 2018 and applied for a one-year renewal in March when Planning Department staff determined it qualified for a Class 1 Categorical Exemption from further California Environmental Quality Act review. Class 1 applies to existing facilities where no significant expansion is proposed that would cause additional environmental impacts.
Under the county’s new licensing process as of this year, the determination was advertised (along with approximately 300 others over the course of several weeks this spring), and a provisional license was issued by the Planning Director. Neighbors within 300 feet of the applicant’s parcel were sent notification by mail and allowed a 10-day appeal period subject to payment of a $500 appeal fee. The commission decision is also appealable to the Board of Supervisors for another $500.
Rhodehouse cited two issues in his appeal: that hoop houses have remained on the property for years beyond the temporary 180-day restriction in the county’s commercial cannabis cultivation ordinance; and that water has been regularly hauled to the grow site which is also a violation of the county ordinance requiring a permitted, onsite water source for cultivation. The county only allows hauling water for cultivation during sudden, unexpected emergency conditions.
Deputy Planning Director Leslie Hubbard said code compliance inspection of the Cook property revealed there are no longer any hoop houses and permanent greenhouses have been constructed under valid building permits approved last year.
She said water was hauled to the site last year during power outages due to the Carr fire when well pumps couldn’t run, but there is some ambiguity because the Cook property shares one well with a neighbor and water is used not only for cultivation, but also by the residence onsite. Hauling water is allowed for domestic use.
Tests were performed in April on the three wells serving the Cook property, concluding a cumulative production of 3.3 gallons per minute after four hours which exceeds the three gallon per minute minimum standard for commercial cannabis established by the county’s Environmental Health Division.
In recommending denial of the appeal, Hubbard said the easiest solution proposed initially by the applicant would be to increase water storage onsite, eliminating any need to haul water. It has already been done through the purchase of additional tanks totaling 55,000 gallons of water storage to be filled by water produced from the wells.
“The ambiguity for us is if someone is hauling water and it is used at the home, are they out of compliance with the cultivation ordinance because it also used there? The easy solution is to have enough storage so you don’t need to haul water,” she said.
Reasons for limiting water hauling in the cultivation ordinance included wear and tear on dirt roads, dust, traffic and concern about tapping illegal water sources anywhere in the county to deliver non-potable water somewhere else. Potable water for domestic use may only be delivered by state certified haulers.
“If you are hauling water for domestic use, you better make sure it is clearly separated from water for cultivation,” Hubbard said.
Planning Commissioners and the appellant questioned the validity of well testing in April after an extremely wet winter.
“Testing production in April doesn’t mean much to the dry part of the year. April is very different from October,” said Commissioner Graham Matthews who added he believes the water uses should be separate and metered because “the water issue is very large. We have critical water overlays in certain watersheds threatening water rights of existing users. It’s not just about water storage. There are bigger issues we need to grapple with at some point.”
Asked how the 55,000-gallon figure was arrived at for water storage, Hubbard said it was an arbitrary number based on what the Cook operation has declared using in the past for cultivation: a maximum of 15,000 gallons during the peak month.
Rhodehouse argued the storage tanks are already there “so we’re finally given the opportunity to appeal this, yet the decision has already been made before the appeal is even heard. It is a cloak for deception. This thing is growing. Now, because they didn’t abide by the law and hauled water, they have the opportunity to increase what they’re doing.”
He said the operation has been there four years, “and now they’re doing more. This is the only vehicle we have to say anything about it, and it’s not just me. There were non-compliant hoop houses, now they are greenhouses. It has not operated legally in the past, so the license should not be considered in good standing and should be denied. I have 70 signatures here. We don’t want it in our community.”
The applicant Cook said he has invested more than $50,000 in water storage and is “absolutely confident no more hauling will be needed. With 10,000 square feet of canopy, we know what we need, but will add more if necessary. And the greenhouses I have three permits issued by the county for since they were engineered and constructed.”
Others complained about odors, dogs, crime, trimmigrants, security cameras in trees, padlocks on gates, road widening to accommodate hauling large water storage tanks to the site, potential impact to water users downstream or downslope, and operating illegally for years prior to obtaining a county license.
One noted that the nearby Rush Creek Estates is a development of 39 one-acre parcels “increasingly surrounded” by large commercial cannabis grows, impacting many residents well beyond the 300-foot notification zone.
Some argued that the Cook license should not have qualified for a Class 1 Categorical Exemption from CEQA given the impacts noted by neighbors.
“It’s an exemption from a more systematic CEQA review of the project. It doesn’t make sense to me to say it is exempt based on being an existing facility. Class 1 is for minor changes. Extension of that to include agriculture surprises me. It also presupposes that what’s already going on has been evaluated, and there has been none. You’re just grandfathering it in, and that’s not logical to me,” said John Letton of Douglas City.
A resident of Rush Creek Estates, Paul Hauser, said “we don’t need this commercial activity in our residential area. And I completely agree that the foundation of the Categorical Exemption is flawed. The problem is the county has kept the location of these licenses secret, so there’s been no public opportunity to review, evaluate or object. There’s no public record. The water issue is critical. Wells are not adequate. Otherwise, why purchase 55,000 gallons of storage? You wouldn’t if wells were adequate.”
Advocating for the applicant, John Brower of Junction City argued that the appeal issues involving hoop houses and water hauling have both been addressed and the current operation “is spic and span. The applicant has been in Trinity County for 10 years and wants to work with the neighborhood. We have over 5,000 commercial-scale operations happening in this county, and this is one of the brave few stepping into the light to comply with the program. I encourage denial of the appeal.”
The Planning Commission voted 5-0 that if there is any possibility of hauling water for domestic use, it must be stored separately from water for cultivation or fire protection. If it is all in bulk storage, then no delivery is acceptable.
On the appeal itself, Commissioners voted 3-2 to deny it. Mike McHugh and Dan Frasier were opposed.
Three questioned the use of a Categorical Exemption for the license.
“If you don’t really go through any environmental review in the first place and use that as a basis for a Categorical Exemption to renew under existing facilities, that could be a problem. We are in the middle of a process that is changing,” said Graham Matthews.
Richard Hoard agreed, saying “how do you base it on something that has not gone through a CEQA process? But are we in a position to change that? The county is in a lawsuit, and it may all change. Do we need to wade in?”
Diana Stewart argued against that, saying the CEQA issue was not cited in the appeal that was filed, “and we don’t need to address it.”
Deputy County Counsel Joe Larmour stopped the discussion, saying the county’s CEQA attorney should be on the phone if commissioners wanted to continue.
McHugh noted some 300 Categorical Exemptions have been issued so far, “and it’s the first time the Planning Commission has had a chance to weigh in. I agree with Matthews about picking CEs out of the air for which there was no initial evaluation and using that to base the decision that there was no change. It’s late in the game and unfortunate that the Planning commission was not invited to weigh in.”