Community in Crisis Meeting Summary and Review
The panel included County Supervisor Estelle Fennel, Planning Director John Ford, Sheriff Lt. Brian Quenell, and, from the Regional Water Board’s Cannabis Unit, Adona White and Shannon Utley. However, California Department of Fish and Wildlife did not respond to their invitation.
Business owners, small growers, environmental stewards, community advocates and permitting consultants were all in the mix of nearly 30 speakers who approached the microphone to ask questions and give comments. Nearly all the focus was directed toward Fennell and Ford who are seen as responsible for the abatement program.
The issues impacting the Southern Humboldt economy predate the county’s efforts to abate unpermitted commercial cannabis. Prices for marijuana have been in decline for nearly a decade, but last year many producers said the bids they were offered barely covered the break-even point, and simultaneously legalization created markets elsewhere which diverted many buyers altogether.
Many Southern Humboldt growers have had product remain unsold each of the past two years. As a result, the community economy was in decline before the abatement letters rolled out this season.
Nonetheless, the abatement program was a primary focus of Thursday’s meeting because it stops small unpermitted growers from producing at all and those that persist face fines of $10,000 a day per violation which can add up to a million dollars in a matter of weeks.
While the abatement program is being implemented all across the county, Planning Director John Ford acknowledged under direct questioning from CLMP’s Bonnie Blackberry that about 75% of the permit applications have come out of Southern Humboldt and about the same percentage of Notices to Abate have been served to owners of parcels in Southern Humboldt County.
The economic downturn happened over the same two-year period during which the abatement program was being developed and implemented. The compounding impact of both has caused Southern Humboldt business owners to experience a steep decline in sales.
Restaurant owner, Beth Bennett, describing the economic catastrophe currently unfolding, told the panel that on average Humboldt County generally has about 60 homes for sale. The MLS (Multiple Listing Service) shows that currently there are over 600 residential properties and over 350 undeveloped parcels on the market.
In interviews Fennel, Ford, and Blanck have indicated that since cultivation is now legal, landowners simply need to get permits and proceed under the law. Several speakers expressed their frustration with this line of thought.
Charlie Custer was one. He said,
I hadn’t expected to speak tonight because I’d given up growing pot…because I couldn’t sell the stuff. That was a year and a half ago.…but because I still had daydreams of selling it, I started the original program at the smallest level…under 3,000 square feet.
And I did it all myself because it was supposed to be simple. Well, it was not, but I did it. And I sent it in with an $1,800 check.
Nothing happened for three or four months. Then I got back a printed sheet which had a bunch of checked boxes on it. I had sent in 19 different submissions in my application. And this checklist said I hadn’t sent in 15 of them.
That obviously meant I had to spend thousands of dollars more to hire someone who had a better idea than I did, I’m just a college graduate, with a lawyer father, and I write for a living. I’m a moron obviously.
But the very simplest program not only is impossible for people who work on their own, but also there was zero communication. John, I said “zero communication” from Planning on what was missing from what I thought was a complete application….
So, I gave up. [S]o, I said ‘cash me out, I’ve learned my lesson. I’m through.’ And I’m lucky; I could [afford to] be through. And I was returned half of my money. I had paid $900 to be told I hadn’t filled out the 15 forms that I had filled out.
And Cecelia Lanman fumed as she informed the panel,
I am here to tell you as a person who has organized battles over logging, I’ve gotten attorneys to file lawsuits for us, done state and federal legislation, two state-wide ballot initiatives, and I am here to tell you ‘there is no way that I, as a layperson, can deal with the application process.’
Lanman went on to a second point which exemplified how easily misunderstandings occur over the nuances in the process and enforcement,
And another thing I have to say is that I heard, John Ford, that you said you are going to go after people who are in the permitting process and I think that is pure cruelty. The state temporary license used to be easy to file and you’d get it in two days. [But,] new regulations were passed, …. And it now requires a scientific review and you have to submit as many of the documents attached to your temporary license as you do for your annual. …So it’s [now] taking people two to four weeks to get the scientific review of the documents. So, how can you bust people who are trying to get a temporary license at the state level?
Ford clarified, “I have not said that. I fight for people in the permitting process with the department of Fish and Wildlife. I fight with the Regional [Water] Board to protect the integrity of our process. I take that very seriously.”
Recognizing the subtleties however, Ford continued, “One of the things I have said is that ‘it is not legal to cultivate without an interim permit and without a state license.’ That is a quote from me.”
Lanman continued to a third point, referencing Ford’s admonishment that applicants have a habit of changing their permit plans, often at the last minute, Lanman rebutted,
One of the reasons people have had to change their maps and change their plans is because when we started the process, you said to measure the area of the fences of the garden and the state wants you to do ‘hoop house walls.’ So of course there’s going to be changes. People are having to constantly adjust. This is a moving target. [In] agriculture cultivation, you have to change your methods over time, so give us a break.
Realtor Del McCain asked about the impacts to note and mortgage holders when buyers receive abatement fines they cannot cope with and properties become foreclosed upon. John Ford admitted this was not an impact they had considered and said he will bring the matter before the Board of Supervisors for consideration.
Mike Thompson, speaking on his concern for the river and the environment, urged the panel to keep the river and the environment in mind as they listened to the community’s concerns,
I would hope that you take into consideration the finite resource of water that we, who are on springs and wells, is being taken by many other people and illegally. You look at that river and there’s no water going into it., so where do you think it is going? No matter what you do, we can’t live without that water. And I want you to take it under consideration when you are inspecting for these different permits.
Thompson’s remarks emphasized the emerging nature of the regulated cannabis economy and the newness of the State programs created to support cultivation. Not until a full week later, on August 30th, will California agencies be in town to hold a workshop (also in the Mateel Community Center) to help people sign up for the appropriative water right that allows them to legally store their riparian water for use in the seasonal drought period from June through October.
Several speakers communicated frustration about the impact of legalization and abatement thwarting the economy and the environment simultaneously by favoring larger growers cultivating thousands of square feet in mixed light and indoor settings, over the ‘mom and pop’ growers with a hundred or fewer outdoor plants.
Co-moderator Robie Tenorio added to this sentiment saying,
[O]ne of the reasons that we might not have taken it so seriously is that the hills were “blowing up” for years and those grows should have all been eradicated by the County and the state and then all of a sudden the little ones are getting the abatements and so part of the frustration is ‘where were the authorities when we needed them?’
While philosopher and philanthropist Paul Encimer is often an outlier in his thinking, he seemed to hit the pulse of the room when he articulated a perception of “cultural cleansing” the abatement program will have by moving smaller cultivators off their land and “making way for something other” to take their place as he called for the “three Rs” of repealing the ordinance, replacing the Supervisors, and an amnesty to rebate money to the permit applicants and abatement fine payers. Encimer added,
The other three Rs are ‘resentment, revenge and retaliation.’ This is what’s running you. Every time you guys talk, we hear you talking that way. ‘All these Bali vacations you’ve been taking; now we are going to make you pay.’ I’m sure you’ll deny every quote, but some of those are actually on tape.
Steve Archibald articulated his concern of an inevitable outcome of cannabis abatement over time asking “Is [this] a warm up practice” for fines on unpermitted home abatements in the future after the Safe Homes amnesty program expires? Fennell and Ford both strongly stated that fines for unpermitted homes are not at all on the minds of current county leadership.
Planning Director Ford seemed to hear the pain in the room. During the course of the evening he promised to correct both future and past Compliance Agreements to include only those Nuisances that were unabated by the end of the ten day period.
One of the things I would say is this is a process that is new to us too. And I hope that you will understand that the first decision that the Planning and Building Department makes is not always the right decision. And sometimes we rethink things. And one of the things we have rethought is the idea that people get fined for the full amount for one day for all the violations when they are able to abate two of them within the first ten days. That was not the right decision. And we are backing away from that. If there is anybody in this room, or if there is anybody listening on the radio, that is impacted by that, please, I invite you to come see me. We will make that right. We will modify the compliance agreement to just the remaining violation. I know that is important for a lot of you for a lot of reasons.
He also vowed to spend more time working from Southern Humboldt to make access more reasonable.
Nevertheless, 21 more Notices to Abate a Nuisance on parcels in Southern Humboldt were posted to the Times Standard at midnight before the 25th of August.
Two notes: John Ford corrected an assertion made by Patrik Griego and reported here. Ford said that the Administrative Hearing Officer for the abatement appeals will NOT be a law student. He or she will be a fully trained and licensed legal professional.
The entire meeting was broadcast over KMUD radio and remains available in the archives at KMUD.org from 6 to 9pm on August 23rd. The titles will reflect the regular programming, but the meeting audio will, nonetheless, be what is archived.