Abated Landowner Claims Addressing County’s Concerns Over Legacy Logging on Property With Not a ‘Stick of Cannabis’ Cost 286K
This is Part 2 in a series on The Humboldt County Cannabis Abatement Program (Part 1 here). The abatement recipient does not want to go public with her name at this time. For the purposes of this story I will call her Jane Doe.
Listen to the extended audio story here in full.
Jane Doe received a notice of violation and notice to abate on March 31, 2019 for alleged cannabis cultivation without a permit, a violation of the Commercial Cannabis Land Use Ordinance, HCC, § 314-55.4 and for alleged unpermitted grading for the purpose of cannabis cultivation, a violation of HCC, § 331-14.
Doe said, “I did not have a stick of cannabis on my land,” and she argued that the grading in question was largely for a driveway that was made by a company that logged her father’s land 45 years ago, before he purchased it. She explained that the Planning and Building Department was, “Making a lot of assumptions that were not correct… We never expanded for the purpose of cannabis cultivation. We were not egregious–my husband is a part of the Green Party…We put a lot of love into our property…using the lay of the land as it had already been damaged [by the logging company].”
In our interview, she describes the abatement process as “nothing short of a terrorist attack.” She said, “You were absolutely guilty until proven innocent. It was a power play…You better do exactly what we say or else your property is going to be seized. It may not have been those exact words, but that was the implicit message.”
Doe said she felt her application for the Safe Homes program triggered her abatement. “There was always an unpermitted cabin on the land since my father bought it 35-40 years ago,” she explained. “When it fell in…we used the same plans to rebuild a new one.” Doe hoped to get the cabin permitted through Humboldt County’s Safe Homes program that she “heard about on KMUD” so she applied January of 2019.
Doe said, “I trusted them. I thought they wanted to work with us… but I had a bad feeling the day I turned in my [Safe Homes] application… the first thing [the Planning and Building Department staff member] said to me was what’s the slope of your driveway and have you registered your spring.” Doe explained, “I had all the water rights” and “didn’t understand why they were asking those questions.” She said she just wanted to permit her cabin but, “[felt] like the Safe Homes program was a trap and I got sucked into it.”
She said that Warren Black, an employee at the Planning and Building Department, told her the Safe Homes’ application was “unrelated to the abatement.” But she explained, “It seems related to me, while I’m waiting months on the County to send a building inspector out, instead I get an abatement notice on my gate?”
When in relation to Humboldt County’s allegations of “cannabis cultivation without a permit,” a notice to abate a nuisance and a notice of violation are posted on people’s gates or community bulletin boards; they are often mailed to the address on file for the property owner and posted in the Times Standard newspaper and website. When someone receives a notice, they are required to remove alleged nuisances, prove there is no cannabis, remove greenhouses and other structures where applicable, and send photos to the Planning and Building Department as evidence all within 10 days. No one from the County confirms this in person, but they do verify using satellite imagery. If you receive a “grading without a permit” violation you are required to hire a professional engineer within 10 days. These are the most common violations associated with cannabis, though there are several more. Additionally, one is required to either file for an abatement appeal hearing or sign a compliance agreement that generally comes with a one day fine (in her case $20,000).
Doe said, “I didn’t find the notice [to abate a nuisance and notice of violation] until four days after it was posted April 3, 2019.” She went to the Planning and Building Department to discuss the violation’s inaccuracies the first business day after receiving the notices. Doe elaborates on her conversation with Warren Black, the code enforcement agent. She said she asked him, “What proof do you have that I was growing cannabis?” Then, she said, “[Black] showed me pictures from years past of a medical garden that I have all my medical cards for.”
Doe said Black advised her, “Medical cannabis didn’t happen after 2016,” as soon as cannabis became legal, medical was nonexistent, and “215’s only exist because people like you will pay for them.”
According to Planning and Building Department Director John Ford at a town hall meeting at the Mateel Center on August 23, 2017, “That’s a little bit grey and legal minds disagree on that… Under 215, people cannot be arrested or prosecuted criminally, but this does not override compliance with local regulations… I’ve looked into it, people disagree on that point. That’s the best answer I can give you.”
Local attorney Eugene Denson states his position,
Medical marijuana law from before legalization remains the law today with one exception: there is no cooperative or collective cultivation for medical marijuana anymore… individual patients with 215s, may grow and possess as much medical marijuana as is reasonably related to their current medical condition, to quote case law… The relationship between personal use plants and medical use plants is not clear in the law… The Sheriff is unaware that these 215s are legal, and will chop the crop upon sighting it. You can sue, but that won’t get you the medicine. One other hurdle for patients: Humboldt County land use ordinances… Medical patients with a green thumb may find it simplest to grow 6 huge plants and forget the 215s. (Denson’s full opinion on Prop 215 post Prop 64 here).
Doe said Black told her to have someone out to her property within 10 days or the $20,000 daily fines would begin. Doe’s husband felt this was “extortion.” Doe was determined to “not loose her dad’s land,” so she took detailed notes on what she needed to do to resolve this and immediately sought out an engineer. On her way home from the Planning and Building Department, she went to several different engineers to discover that they were all booked, some two months out. With only six days left before the $20,000 daily fines began accruing, she was “panicking” and had someone “pull some strings” for her to make an exception to their two month wait time.
“Evidence submitted of no cultivation at the time abatement notice received. [All photos provided by Jane Doe]
Doe said she followed through with the engineer who began her forest restoration plan immediately. She took pictures to prove there was no cannabis cultivation, and she submitted all the required paperwork to Warren Black within six days after she received the notice. Doe said, “Warren Black has never responded still to this day, so that $20,000 daily fine was just looming… I resent that they are in this position where they can place all these timelines and demands on the people and yet they don’t hold themselves to the same standards.”
As a result of the abatement Doe said, “I could not sleep, I was stressing, it was crazy, the timelines…It took a toll on my husband’s health…It was the most stressful experience in our 23 years together.”
I asked her to elaborate on the grading violation and she explained, “Our property had been completely clear cut 45 years ago. That’s how my dad got it so cheap.” According to Doe, when she began to homestead the land, she “cleared brush off of old logging roads to use them and for fire prevention purposes” because “there had been a fire nearby years ago that almost wiped us out.” She also stated that they cut their household’s firewood using sustainable harvesting techniques. There were 32 sites for restoration, including another open area in question that Doe said “was an old landing area which is where the logging company put the log deck in a logging operation.” Doe claimed, “John Ford admitted with Bob Russell in one meeting that the grading was done by the logging company.”
Doe explained, “We never graded more than 50 cubic yards for the purpose of cannabis cultivation,” as stated in the notice “but we did grade our driveway, because it slipped out every winter.”
Doe said the logging company made the driveway. She admitted that the culvert did need replacing, but she did not think it was necessary to replace it with one that could withstand a 100-year flood, which necessitated it being four feet wide by 60 feet long.
Doe, having reached out to the County on several occasions with no response, and being concerned that the $20,000/ daily fines were accumulating, rushed to “fix the logging legacies” including the 60 foot long, four foot tall culvert per her various experts and the 19 agencies working on her case. Doe said one of her experts suggested that they do the restoration plan and fix the culvert before hearing back from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife or County. Not only were the fines accruing, but the wet season was approaching and their October 15 deadline to finish the culvert was as well.
Doe said, “I just wanted this abatement over and these people out of my life…I finally got a response from Fish and Game the day it was too late to do anything about the culvert.” She finally discovered on October 15, that they were to begin the restoration project in May 2020, after they had already completed the work as advised by various experts.Doe says her husband is a licensed heavy equipment machine operator and owns the equipment required to do the culvert and other forest remediation work. Doe said, “The cost of the 100-year flood culvert was approximately $100k,” had her husband not done it. However, she said her husband did miss out on his contracted union job in Paradise. Before they received the abatement “he was contracted to make $1400 a day that year [$232k, April-November]…He already had his parking space reserved for his RV,” but they felt he had to stay as a consequence of the abatement notice’s strict timelines instead, which lead to “financial devastation.”
They didn’t just lose his wages but also incurred, “endless restoration costs, 4k for this, 11k for the engineer, numerous application fees, paying someone to fill them out multiple times, experts, 5k for Fish and Game (one of 19 agencies), it just went on and on and in the thousands,” Doe explained.
“After numerous attempts to get a response from the County,” Doe said she heard nothing from the Planning and Building Department about her abatement, until she spoke up at a town meeting in July 2019 at the Mateel Center. After she spoke out at the meeting, John Ford spoke with her on three separate occasions to review her case
“After months of waiting on the County to respond and completing the forest restoration plan for legacy logging,” By , January 23, 2020 Doe was eventually able to permit her cabin and resolve her abatement while paying no administrative penalty in one of three special meetings with John Ford.
Doe said, “I’m out $286,000 because of the abatement.”
Doe filed a claim in March against Humboldt County for reimbursement for her forest restoration work, remedying legacy logging, and “having absolutely no cannabis.” However her claim was denied last week. The County’s Notice of Rejection – Letter of Explanation dated April 2nd, 2020 states,
We have completed our investigation regarding the claim for damages you filed with the clerk of the Board of Supervisors on March 5th, 2020. Based on our investigation, the County’s direction for remediation was to stop cultivating, remove cannabis and related infrastructure, and restore any grading completed to accommodate the cannabis cultivation. The Planning and Building Department staff were not given opportunity in this situation to review the work plan prior to remediation and did not direct the additional work that was undertaken. The County does not enforce requirements of California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), so all the costs associated with replacement of culverts are not the result of the County’s direction. Therefore, the County of Humboldt is rejecting your claim with the enclosed notice of rejection. If you have any questions contact the Humboldt County Risk Management Division (707) 268-3669… Warning: Subject to certain exceptions, you have only six (6) months after the date this note was personally delivered or deposited in the mail to file a court action on this claim. See Government Code § 945.6.”
The Planning and Building Department’s instructions on Doe’s Notice to Abate, under “Corrective Action Required” for the grading without a permit violation, reads, “Submit and obtain approval for a restoration plan that restores/revegetates the graded area(s) to pre-violation conditions. Obtain all permits needed for restoration, complete the approved work and pass a final inspection.” Her expert engineer and forester’s restoration plan was stamped by the PBD as “received on May 13, 2019.”
Does says, “We did exactly what they told us to do. We hired experts, finished the restoration plan…There was never a stop sign. We were never told, that once the restoration plan is created we would have a sit down meeting to review it and tell you what we won’t require you to do. There was never a moment where they said I was doing too much or that the culvert was more than what was required. There was never a discussion that some of the 32 sites were optional. There was no communication period. We were on our own to get through this abatement and the professionals we hired were the ones we followed. Nobody told us any differently.”
Doe’s husband adds, “I even invited Ford to come out and assess the property, to clarify the expectations of us before I began the massive culvert project, and he never accepted my offer. At what point did [the Planning and Building Department staff and Director] not have the opportunity to review the restoration plan in our numerous meetings with them, numerous submission of documents along with my invitation to Ford?”
Doe’s remaining option is whether or not to sue the County of Humboldt for reimbursement— that decision is still being determined. Doe emphasized, “I’m not trying to bash John Ford, I think he is a good man in a really [undesirable] position. I think he gets overwhelmed with these horror stories, but I really think he is trying to do right by us to this day. I don’t think everybody gets his attention and I don’t think I would have had I not spoke up at that town hall meeting on July 28th, 2019.”Late 2019 as the abatement requirements were completed and nearing resolution, yet another deadline was looming for Doe. The cannabis cultivation permit rules were set to change again at the end of 2019, and Doe says she was advised by the Planning and Building Department that, “No one would ever be able to obtain a permit to cultivate cannabis on your land if you don’t apply for a cultivation permit by December 30th, 2019.” She said she “didn’t want to farm cannabis necessarily,” but she had already “done much of the work required to get a permit.” She also took out a mortgage to do this work and was “out $286,000 resulting from the abatement.” When faced with the possibly of no one ever being able to grow cannabis on her land, she submitted her permit application on December 19th, 2019, in hopes to recoup her losses. She explained, “I feel I’m being forced to farm just to get my money back.”
In early 2020, her consultant informed her that she might not get to farm in 2020 because the County hasn’t processed her application in time. He said that she was “at the bottom of the stack.”
Doe said, “My cannabis planner, Liza Welsh, said she would get to my application when she got to it, but not likely in time for us to farm this year.”
Doe, faced with another loss, immediately reached out to Ford to express her disapproval at the lengthy permit process, negating her ability to recoup her losses in a timely manner, “Ford answered the phone, which was a miracle, and he said he would handle it, he got us out of the bottom of the stack… but what about people who don’t have that? I don’t want to get special favors,” Doe professed.
Doe is still going through the cannabis cultivation permit process to this day. In the process of determining how she would afford another investment, she was amazed to be advised by her lender to just “clear cut the property again,” Doe says, “I’ve been waiting 40 years for it to grow back… I could just never log it.”
Vultures circle those impacted by the process. Amidst her most challenging moments enduring the abatement process Doe received two offers to sell her 38 acre property for “quick and easy cash” during the abatement process from an Illinois company called “I Buy Rural Land,” the first offer was for 51k, the second was for 76k.
In the audio interview, Doe explains the cultural impact of legalization and some of the issues that permitted farms are facing today, including vulnerabilities like theft. She tells the story of her getting robbed recently since “going on the map” including the theft of a gun. Doe says, “The [police] would not even come out to investigate. We are on our own.”
Doe finally says, “I feel that we need to have an abatement support group, and I would be happy to facilitate that. People have horror stories and they don’t really have anybody they can talk to about it… I mean people care, but when you’ve been through it, it’s a validating experience to be able to say, yeah, me, too.”
This reporter contacted John Ford and the Planning and Building Department for their comment on this story, Ford states, “It would not be appropriate for me to make any comments on this subject.”
Nichole Norris [email protected]
NOTE: This post was substantially updated to a corrected version of the article at 9:55 a.m.. If anyone needs the earlier version to check against this one, we will provide it.