Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell represents a huge portion of the county’s growers. It’s been nearly a year since we last checked in with Supervisor Fennell. In part one of our two-part interview, she talks about EIR’s, carpetbaggers, and the interplay between the various government agencies regulating the industry.
Emerald Tribune: What has changed since we last sat down with you in November 2016?
Estelle Fennell: A lot has changed since then. The personal use and adult use voter initiative was passed. That now is affecting everything we’re doing at the County level, and the State. We’ve already passed an ordinance to say that we were folding adult use and recreational use in with our medical marijuana ordinance.
That’s an extremely important step for us to take, because it ensures local control. If we didn’t do that, the state could actually issue a license without the county having done so. It’s really important for Humboldt to maintain that local control. We have conducted numerous, very productive workshops, and our revised ordinance and EIR will be going before the Planning Commission in early November and it will then come to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote.
Another thing that’s changed is that we have become very involved at the state level. I’m on the Cannabis Working Group with the California State Association of Counties (CSAC). They’ve stepped up tremendously in the last year.
It’s really important for counties like Humboldt to have a say. We’re a cultivation county specifically. When the state legislature is making its mind up about issues, they have to take our concerns into account. So the bottom line is that CSAC is working with the counties now. The Rural County Representatives of California has also stepped in and been very proactive in representing rural counties to the state.
At the federal level we now have the Trump administration, and just what that means we don’t know. His Attorney General has been a vocal opponent of cannabis. However, the government process should ensure that previous guidelines from the Attorney General’s office will be followed by that office to one degree or another
At this point we’re still adhering to the Cole Memo, which means the feds have had a hands-off approach, allowing the state to do the best they can. All of our ordinances are pursuant to Cole. I would say we’re even stronger than what Cole calls for. We are doing our very best to have an impact on the black market. No amount of helicopters was able to do that.
The big issue is the cash economy, and the fact that because cannabis is rated as a Schedule 1 drug, the money can’t be banked. How can we protect the security of all those legal funds? Colorado created a bank, and that didn’t seem to work very well.
I’m part of a working group at CSAC that deals with banking and how to handle cash. We’re talking about something along the lines of a joint powers agreement with the idea that Counties and cities will handle taxation of cannabis in a safe and efficient manner.
If we could get to the point where everything is normalized, those funds could go into the banks. They could be used for other things that the community needs. Banks can loan for mortgages, there are all sorts of ways that outstanding community issues can be addressed by dealing with banks. That can’t happen at this point, but I’m hopeful that somewhere down the line the legislature in Washington DC will see the wisdom of that.
If they would at least allow the states a chance to prove themselves, I think that would go a long way. I just don’t see it rolling back. Even the California Association of Counties was loathe to really deal with this just a few short years ago. They did not want to deal with it, and now they’re all in.
ET: Will there be any new cannabis ordinance before the end of the year?
EF: I’m working on it right now. I have stacks of different things that we’re working on for our revised ordinance. We’re having workshops, before going in front of the Planning Commission with our Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Then it will come to the supervisors, and we’re hoping to have it all done before the beginning of the year, when the state says they’ll be ready to go with their licenses. I’ve been to numerous meetings at the state level. It is very challenging for them to come up with how they’re going to do this. It’s huge.
I just got a summary from the California Department of Food and Agriculture of what will be in their regulations. They haven’t published them yet, but they’re very close. They did theirs under what’s called an emergency ordinance, so they don’t have to do much public outreach. Once they’ve come up with the plan, there’s very little chance to change it after that point. They just hand us what they came up with, and we handle it
They’re very user-friendly. They’ve been very very helpful in terms of providing updates on how they’re moving along to establish the website Cal Cannabis (http://calcannabis.cdfa.ca.gov/). Anybody who’s interested can keep tabs on what they’re up to, so they’re doing a good job. The bureau will be coming out with their regulations pretty soon too.
ET: That’s also supposed to happen before January?
EF: We’ve said this before and we’ll probably say it again, but Humboldt County really has stepped up to this challenge. We recognized that we needed to get ahead of this, because it wasn’t going to get any easier as time went on. It only gets more difficult for people who join later on. That’s what we’re seeing now with cities and counties that have not done the kind of work that we have, it’s really a challenge to be ready for January 1st 2018.
ET: Could you talk a little bit about the feedback so you’ve been getting at the workshops?
EF: An issue has arisen with regard to cities in Humboldt County. The City of Fortuna is opposed to cannabis cultivation, and pretty opposed to anything having to do with it.
In our original ordinance, we required that new permits be tied to prime agricultural soil. Prime agricultural soil will mean two things: it’s flat, and it’s well suited for agriculture. When we put that forward in the first place, the discussion was, who’s going to be putting these plants in the ground? Most people grow them in pots or in greenhouses. Farms are few and far between who put it in the ground.
“It’s been a very eventful year to say the least, especially if you’re in my shoes.”
We decided it was the environmentally superior way to go, but it pushed the new grows into areas that were mapped already for prime agricultural soil. If you look at a map of prime agricultural, it doesn’t look like there’s much there. There’s 2,948 acres of prime ag in Humboldt County. Some of that happened to be around the City of Fortuna in some areas.
Prime agricultural soil is actually hard to find in the more traditional growing communities, because those are up in the hills. They’re agricultural, but not prime. They’re more for cattle grazing and timber, they’re not for growing food. But guess what? There’s prime agricultural soil located in several areas around Fortuna.
That brought up what’s become an issue with what’s known as “the sphere of influence,” which is the area that the city could expand into eventually in the future if they built out. If the city doesn’t allow cultivation, do we want to put extra limits in those areas in its sphere of influence? Do we want to ask for conditional-use permits, or something of that nature?
After hearing all of the concerns that were raised to me, I think the one that is the most lasting is odor. Maybe there are ways that can be dealt with. In the new ordinance, we’re going to be addressing what can happen in the sphere of influence of the cities, or a thousand feet from a city line, if it’s completely built out.
Other feedback that we’ve gotten is the concern about roads. The roads are definitely an issue, but they’re mainly an issue because of people who are not permitted for growing.
People have complained about the noise from generators. Some people are very concerned about noise pollution. So these are all areas that we can address. We have already addressed them, but we’re going to kind of fine-tune the list of the main concerns we’ve had.
A lot of these issues are covered by the ordinance, but people are ignoring them. Another issue that’s become very clear is light pollution from people who are doing mixed-light grows. According to our ordinance, you can’t let that light go out into the environment.
Those complaints that we’ve gotten are genuine and come from all sides of the community. The flip side of that is the vision for what it will be like when people do go through the process. It will look so much better than it does now, or arguably than it has been for many years.
ET: Have you heard any specific concerns from within the cannabis industry?
EF: Yes. In fact, some of those things that I mentioned actually come from inside and outside the cannabis community. Many people who have been involved in cultivation for many years are concerned about the activities of some of the newer people who have come in, who aren’t connected to the community, and don’t really care. They’ve gone out there and cut trees down, and diverted water, all those things. We get complaints from people who are going through the process, saying we’re trying to do it well and right, and these guys are just destroying our environment. So the complaints came from both inside and outside.
Other complaints that we’ve gotten from the cultivation community have been around things like the excise tax. For people who are applying for new permits, and haven’t been able to do any cultivation this year, according to our ordinance, once they got their permit they would have had to pay for the whole of 2017. If it’s 10,000 square feet of mixed light, that would be $20,000. That’s a lot of money, especially if you haven’t been able to operate your business.
We just addressed that at yesterday’s meeting. What we’re doing now is we’re prorating it. So new people who went through the process, and did not cultivate because they didn’t have their permit yet, will be prorated from when they are actually getting their permit. That might be for 2 or 3 months, which I think is fair.
So we respond as much as we can. We have the ability to respond to that concern right away, because it’s in the excise tax. With other concerns, for instance about the sphere of influence, we could not address that because of a settlement we reached with HuMMAP.
The settlement said that we couldn’t make any changes to the ordinance until after we did an EIR, and it took until now to get that done. I understand that the concern was that we should have done an EIR, but we had already planned to do one.
I get it, I understand the concerns but it annoyed me a little bit. Because within a month or two, I saw that there were some issues we could have taken care of, if we had access to the ordinance. Now with the EIR, we should be able to make those adjustments and so I’m very happy. It’s been a very eventful year to say the least, especially if you’re in my shoes.
Supervisor Fennell can be reached at her county email at email@example.com. For Part Two of our Q & A, check back next week.