Code Enforcement Targets Cannabis with Minimum $10k a day Fines
Since August of 2017, Humboldt County Code Enforcement, which is now part of the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department, has sent out about 250 Notices to Abate a Nuisance (NTA).
In a phone interview late on Friday the 13th of July, Humboldt County Planning and Building Department Director John Ford explained that the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors has given him direction to “focus [Code Enforcement] on unpermitted cannabis cultivation.”
Ford described the purpose in two parts: protecting the environment and providing a fair business environment for those cultivators who have gone through the process of becoming permitted.
Ford says unpermitted cultivation now carries a minimum penalty of $10,000 a day after 10 days. Ford says these large fines will drive unpermitted growers out of business. When asked if it might simply drive cultivation back underground, Ford said, “People are going to do what they are going to do, but the heart of this is to bring cannabis into the light.” He continued saying, it’s an “effort to allow legal cultivators freedom from competition with illegal growers ….to protect them ….provide them with a level playing field.” He explained, “It costs money to become legal, and the black market undercuts them.”
And Ford named the big environmental problems his department sees as “tree removal, grading, stream sedimentation and water diversion.”
Ford explained that landowners may get their property into compliance within 10 days and avoid an Abatement fee altogether. He acknowledges that sometimes, especially when grading is involved, meeting a 10-day deadline may not be possible. Ford said that if landowners enter into a Compliance Agreement the fees are capped at one day per violation.
Director Ford said that as of Friday the 13th, the County has billed over $600,000 in Abatement Fees. And that his Department collects the fees, but that most of the money goes into the County’s General Fund with some reserved for the costs of ‘correcting or abating’ sites when necessary. Ford said he is not aware of any properties that have been forfeited by the property owner’s inability or unwillingness to cooperate with an NTA. He said that “well over 200” property owners have corrected their violations or entered into a compliance agreement. Compliance Agreements give landowners a year to correct the violations.
As a result of a Public Records Act request, Humboldt County released a PDF version of a spreadsheet containing about 217 records of Notices sent as of June 29th, 2018. There have subsequently been about 50 more published in the Public Notices section of the Times Standard.
Nonetheless, as of June 29th, 100% of the orders included in the spreadsheet had violations of County Ordinance 314-55.4 (Cannabis) and County Ordinance 331-28 (Structures). 85% of them also had a violation of County Ordinance 331-14 (Grading). Ford affirmed that the structures in question are almost always unpermitted greenhouses or hoop houses.
18 NTAs also included solid waste disposal violations and 19 included citations for inadequate sewage disposal. And two records had citations for “sewage creating a nuisance.”
Fifteen addressed illegal subdivisions (MPA), three were noticed for using their properties outside of zoning allowances, and seven were cited for using an RV as a residence.
Owners of six parcels were notified they were in violation of Humboldt County Ordinance 354-1 (junk vehicles) and two of them were considered to be operating a junkyard without a permit (371-2)
The Notice to Abate Nuisance (NTA) says, “You are Hereby Ordered to Abate said nuisance within ten (10) calendar days after service of this Notice to Abate….” Unless Code Enforcement determines that the condition causing the nuisance is “imminently dangerous to human life or limb or is detrimental to the public health or safety,” and then the Code Enforcement Unit may “order the affected property be vacated pending the correction or abatement….”
Landowners who receive an NTA have ten calendar days after service of the Notice to appeal. To appeal, one must use the “Code Enforcement Appeal Hearing Request Form.” which will be Attachment C on the Notice. It is a legal requirement that the hearing date be at least 15 days after the appeal is received.
The Notice says that if the problem is not corrected either after receipt of the Notice or after a judge’s order in the case of an appeal, “the Code Enforcement Unit may correct or abate the condition…causing the nuisance.”
If the County has the problems abated, the landowner will then receive a “special assessment” against the property’s land taxes. That assessment “will be collected at the same time, in the same manner, and subject to the same penalties, interest and procedures of foreclosure and sale in the case of delinquency, as is provided for ordinary property taxes.” And if the property is sold by its owner, the assessment stands as a lien on the property.
And NTAs also state, “[P]ersonal property collected by the Code Enforcement Unit during the correction or abatement of the condition…may be sold in the same manner as surplus personal property of the County of Humboldt, and the proceeds…shall be paid into the revolving fund….”
Of the 217 records detailed in the spreadsheet, 197 records indicate where the properties are located by zip code:
95 are in areas generally regarded as Southern Humboldt, however, none were in Bell Springs Road communities such as Harris or Island Mountain; 40 were east of Bridgeville on Hwy 36; 2 were in Hyampom, 24 in the Willow Creek, Hoopa and Orleans areas, only 2 were in Northern Humboldt, and 25 were in the Honeydew and Petrolia region.
60, about 27%, of the parcels show the owner’s mailing address as outside of Humboldt County. And 43 (20%) on the list are owned by an LLC or a trust.
Ford said Code Enforcement is “randomly going to different areas. We intentionally have no sequence so people don’t know when to expect things.” He said they look for most egregious examples in an area.
Ford did say, however, that Code Enforcement does focus on neighborhoods “in concentric circles” around properties that have been identified as being in violation of the County Codes for cannabis cultivation. However, according to Ford, Code Enforcement does “not use a magnifying glass to find a few plants.”
When asked why some get a Notice and some get “raided,” he said his department does not initiate the raids but accompanies other agencies such as the Drug Task Force or the Department of Fish and Wildlife on enforcement actions.
Author’s note: because the NTA records came in a PDF and not a spreadsheet, all the counting and calculations were done by hand. Errors may exist.