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Yolo County considers banning commercial pot production, reversing on previous policy

Jessica Harvey, 29, smells her fragrant fubar strain marijuana plant inside her barn on Tuesday in Rumsey. Capay Valley is the hot spot for legal marijuana farming in the region, with 30 farms lining Highway 16 in the northwest corner of Yolo County.
Jessica Harvey, 29, smells her fragrant fubar strain marijuana plant inside her barn on Tuesday in Rumsey. Capay Valley is the hot spot for legal marijuana farming in the region, with 30 farms lining Highway 16 in the northwest corner of Yolo County. rpench@sacbee.com

Lured by the area’s rich soil and relatively affordable small plots, marijuana farmers recently had been locating in Capay Valley, making the northwest corner of Yolo County one of the hotspots for legal cannabis cultivation in the capital region.

Not everyone has welcomed the new farms in this agricultural community traditionally known for almonds, walnuts, grapes, tomatoes and other crops. And now concerns about safety and complaints about the strong smell of cannabis from the outdoor grows are threatening to derail the county’s burgeoning marijuana industry.

The fate of legal commercial growing in Yolo also hinges on voters next year approving a tax on medical marijuana. County supervisors say they will ban the farms without the tax.

The possible ban has come as a surprise to many who have invested in the area. Yolo County, which only allows farmers to cultivate medical marijuana, previously had been regarded as a place with forward-looking views on pot. The county just this past spring signed on to participate in a pioneering track-and-trace program for locally grown plants.

Yolo’s potential reversal on cannabis cultivation in some ways mirrors a similar situation in Calaveras County. In that county, a previous majority on the Board of Supervisors invited growers to locate there, only to have a new board consider banning them, following complaints from residents about pollution and crime.

Yolo County granted 68 permits for medical marijuana farms, including 30 in Capay Valley, before issuing a moratorium in October 2016. Since March of this year, the county has received more than 70 complaints about the grows, primarily due to odor, fencing and security, said Stephanie Cormier of the county’s cannabis task force.

County supervisors have responded to the complaints by creating more regulations and considering an outright ban on the farms.

“The future is a little cloudy,” said Supervisor Don Saylor, who supports medical marijuana growers. “Investors should exercise extreme caution.”

Saylor said he backs the farms because local voters this past year largely supported Proposition 64, which legalized adult use of marijuana in California. Yolo County voters approved last year’s initiative by 60 percent, and the figure in Saylor’s district was 10 percent higher. Statewide, 57 percent of voters supported Proposition 64.

County officials say they decided to further regulate medical marijuana grows this past year in part as an attempt to curb illegal pot farms. Now the county is warning growers that more changes could be on the way.

The county is asking cannabis farmers to sign documents indicating they are aware of the risks due to the possibility of new regulations or even a ban. The notices are an attempt to give investors fair warning about the political landscape, said Leslie Lindbo, county planning director.

“People are making significant investments, and they may have to move or close,” she said.

Jacqueline McGowan, a cannabis industry consultant, said she is advising a client to consider moving a proposed $24 million cultivation project to another “friendlier” jurisdiction due to the uncertainty facing the industry in Yolo County. The client, she said, has licenses for two properties in Woodland.

“I have 154 other jurisdictions that will gladly take this economic opportunity, and my clients are being courted daily by many of them,” she said, adding that the county needs to sign long-term development agreements to attract serious investors.

Farmers already operating in Yolo County also are expressing concerns. Graham McNamera said he has invested $500,000 in Green River Gardens in Guinda and worries that future regulations will force him to spend more money or will make him move out all together.

“It definitely keeps me up at night,” he said. “Things are changing fast.”

Supervisor Duane Chamberlain, who represents Capay Valley, said he is tired of hearing complaints about pot farms in his district. He said he is opposed to marijuana use except in serious medical cases and only agreed to regulate medical marijuana farms as an attempt to eliminate the black market.

He said the county has too many legal growers. “I’d like to get rid of some of them,” he said.

Jessica Harvey said she has not received any complaints since she became a licensed grower in Capay Valley. She might be helped by an adjacent lavender farm that creates a “smell buffer” for her pot farm.

Harvey said she is worried about what may become of the local industry and her farm. “It’s really dividing the community,” she said.

The future of legal grows in Yolo County is tied to a tax that would be used to pay for law enforcement efforts against illegal pot grows. Supervisors are considering putting the tax proposal on the ballot in June, but say they need to decide the amount of the tax and other issues before setting a date.

Supervisors say they want a “poison pill” clause that calls for a ban of commercial grows if the tax isn’t passed. Saylor said the provision is intended to create pressure to approve the vote.

Another possibility for Yolo County growers is having to move the plants indoors. Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner John Young has proposed having all grows indoors or in greenhouses. That would help eliminate complaints about the smell of marijuana, he said.

“Outdoor cultivation is not going to be a fit for Yolo County,” he said.

The county has been holding hearings in various locations to solicit input about medical marijuana grows. Officials plan to solicit opinions from residents and growers and use that information to create regulations for the industry. The Planning Commission will make recommendations that will eventually go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval sometime next year.

The city of Sacramento is the only other jurisdiction to approve commercial marijuana grows in the capital region. Sacramento only allows indoor grows, in part because of a lack of agricultural land, but also because it better controls smell, said the city’s pot czar, Joe Devlin. He said Yolo County could eliminate odor complaints by locating pot farms in the middle agricultural zones without housing.

One of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, Colorado has banned outdoor grows except for personal use. In California, the choice of indoor or outdoor grows is up to local jurisdictions.

Chamberlain and other county officials also are concerned about public safety threats created by farms.

Last week, the Sheriff’s Department reported that a grower in Guinda was robbed at gunpoint in his home. The grower told deputies that there were four or five assailants and at least two of them had guns. They stole an estimated 600 pounds of marijuana.

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