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Supes Narrowly Approve Cannabis EIR

San Andreas, CA – In a vote that squeaked by 3-to-2 the Calaveras supervisors approved ponying up around $172,000 for a detailed study on the potential local impacts of medical cannabis cultivation.

At Tuesday’s meeting, a handful of local residents weighed in on the topic for several minutes. Some called the environmental impact report (EIR) project a waste of money for an uncertain outcome that many residents do not support — or a kowtow to a fledgling private industry that should pay its own way upfront.

County Planning Director Peter Maurer explained while his department had sufficient funding budgeted, when a fee is adopted for processing cultivation applications under the permanent ordinance, his recommendation would be for the cost be included as part of the amount. Calaveras Cannabis Alliance representative Mark Bolger, who spoke for his group, stated that the industry would be happy to pay for the environmental impact study through registration fees.

Concerns Over Other Cannabis Ordinances

Detailing the Planning Department’s process, Mauer explained that of the four request-for-proposal responses his office received, Ascent Environmental, which came in at mid-range was determined to be the most responsive to county needs. In order to adopt a permanent ordinance, Maurer maintained the state requires an environmental document, additionally raising concerns that another jurisdiction — Mendocino County — is currently being sued over its urgency ordinance and inadequate environmental provisions.

Current media reports state that a group of conservationists and hunters is suing Mendocino, saying it violated state environmental laws by increasing limits on the cultivation of medical marijuana without sufficient study. The plaintiffs’ position is that impacts from the rapidly growing cannabis industry must be fairly analyzed, just as logging, transportation, agriculture, building and other industries are. The lawsuit alleges the county illegally attempted to skirt regulations with its urgency ordinance, and “prejudicially abused its discretion by finding the project qualified for exemption” from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Mauer assured the board that several protective provisions were included in the Ascent agreement. Among these, if a potential local initiative that seeks to regulate marijuana cultivation makes it to the November ballot and is passed, thereby negating the need to meet CEQA requirements, the contract could conclude at that point with no penalties to the county. It was estimated that the November election would come about halfway through the project, which is slated to take about 40 weeks.

Eyeing The November Ballot 

At that point, county staff alerted the supervisors that within the next two weeks it would be known whether the initiative has sufficient certified signatures to pass. Too, should that happen, the supervisors would then need to approve placing it on the ballot for the people to decide; although it would be also possible for the ordinance to be adopted through a board vote. District 2 Supervisor Chris Wright argued that perhaps a decision on approving the EIR contract should wait until then.

After moving for the board to move forward and approve the contract for the EIR, District 4 Supervisor Debbie Ponte shared her takeaway on the matter. “What I heard today was that this was a contract to start an EIR, based on an urgency ordinance and working towards the more permanent ordinance — which has been a direction of the majority of the board for quite some time,” she stated. Since the cost is budgeted with reimbursement by the cannabis industry through fees and the contract offers several outs, she reasoned that the EIR project provides a secure approach. As so many questions remain regarding the numerous impacts, Ponte remarked that the report would help provide the county a better understanding of local cannabis operations so that they could be better regulate it.

Satisfied after hearing her perspective Wright seconded Ponte’s motion. Throwing his support to the move, District 1 Supervisor and Board Chair Cliff Edson opined, that even if the urgency ordinance backtracked to become more of a ban, the EIR would provide good tools for the county.  Although District 3 Supervisor Mike Oliveira and District 5 Supervisor Steve Kearney dissented, the motion passed.