Big victory for the cannabis industry in Superior Court
In a sweeping ruling that puts a seal of approval on the county’s adoption of the rapidly growing rural cannabis industry, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge this week dismissed an action in justice to shut down 22-acre cannabis. hoop-house operation on route 246.
Noting that “this is a very important matter,” Judge Thomas Anderle ruled on Tuesday that the county’s environmental review and zoning permit for Busy Bee’s Organics, one kilometer west of Buellton, were in full compliance. state laws and county land use policies. The right time to file a lawsuit, he said, was back in early 2018, when the county supervisory board certified an environmental impact report (EIR) and passed ordinances governing cultivation and cultivation. cannabis licenses.
The judge categorically dismissed allegations by the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, the complainant in the case, that the county failed to consider or address the impacts of the burgeoning industry on vineyards, orchards and row crops and instead swept them under the carpet.
The coalition was asking the court to halt operations at Busy Bee’s and order the county to check whether the stench of marijuana plants from the expanding cannabis farms west of Buellton, including Busy Bee’s, was harming it. lucrative wine tasting business; whether conflicts over the “drift” of pesticides from traditional crops to cannabis posed problems for farmers; and whether the malodorous gases, or “terpenes” emitted by cannabis could be absorbed through the skin of wine grapes, “marring” the quality of regional wines.
Anderle commended all of the lawyers in the case for their “very high quality” and “professional” briefs. But he said lawyers for the county and Busy Bee’s had “far too many arrows in their quivers, many of which are deadly,” for the coalition to win. He agreed with the defendants’ claim that the lawsuit was “not about Busy Bee’s Farm” and “seems to be rooted in regret” that no one sued the county over cannabis three years ago.
“The time to challenge the sufficiency of the original EIR has long expired and the question is whether the circumstances have changed enough to warrant repeating a substantial part of the process,” Anderle said. He concluded that no additional environmental review was necessary.
In a written statement Tuesday, Sara Rotman, co-owner of Busy Bee’s and defendant in the case, said Anderle’s decision was “clear, well-reasoned and sends a strong message that the misuse of environmental lawsuits as a weapon against the world’s most sustainable and regulated culture is a losing strategy. “
“The road to this legal victory has been long and at times painful,” she said. “I can’t wait to return to farming full time instead of spending so much time fighting unfounded litigation.”
Blair Pence, chairman of the coalition and owner of Pence Vineyards & Winery on Route 246, west of Busy Bee’s, said on Tuesday the group would appeal the decision.
“It is certainly disappointing that the court summarily dismissed the opportunity to fix something that has gone so badly wrong,” he said.
The 30-day statute of limitations for challenging cannabis prescriptions after the board vote on Feb. 27, 2018 appears to have been the county’s strategy from the start, Pence said. “’Act quickly and quietly, hoping that no one understands before it is too late.’ Hopefully an appeals court independent of local politics will see it differently. “
The Coalition, a nonprofit group of about 200 farmers, winegrowers and residents from the Cuyama Valley to the Carpinteria Valley, has filed four cannabis lawsuits and two dozen cannabis zoning permit calls these years, urging county supervisors to curb an industry. that coalition members see as disruptive and out of control.
To date, the group has secured voluntary concessions from some growers on odor control, but supervisors have resisted demands from hundreds of residents and the county grand jury for a review of the cannabis ordinances.
Marc Chytilo, an attorney for the coalition, said that in early 2018, “no one knew what the consequences of cultivation on this scale would be on this community.” The coalition was not yet formed; Following the deadly debris flow on January 9, 2018 in Montecito, residents of the south coast were still in mourning.
But even today, Chytilo said, the coalition is not anti-cannabis.
“We don’t want to block the industry; we just want them to be as responsible as possible, ”he said.
Busy Bee’s lawsuit was the first of three brought by the coalition against county and outdoor cannabis owners ‘pushing’ on Route 246 last year, including West Coast Farms and Castlerock Family Farms, all located in the picturesque wine tasting region. between Buellton and Lompoc. In this region, applications for nearly 800 acres of outdoor cannabis are at various stages of the county’s review for Sta. Rita Hills, a federally designated wine-growing area in America.
The Busy Bee case is said to be the first to seek stricter regulation of outdoor cannabis cultivation based on alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. Tuesday’s decision signals the potential pitfalls of this strategy and suggests that the coalition will face an uphill battle in its future trials.
In 2018, the Santa Barbara County Supervisory Board examined 12 ‘significant and unavoidable’ environmental impacts associated with the cannabis industry – including the noxious smell of the pot and the detrimental effects of cannabis operations on farmland. neighbors – and dismissed them all in a “prime considerations statement.” “
The council said it wanted to make way for “a robust and economically viable legal cannabis industry” and promote “the continuation of agricultural production” in the face of “competition from foreign markets and rising costs of cannabis supply. water”.
“There is not a project in the history of the county that has had such a significant impact,” Chytilo told Anderle.
“Overspray” and “Taint”
The record shows that the first farmer to oppose Busy Bee’s was a neighboring lawyer who claimed she was forced to change the type of pesticide she was using so as not to contaminate cannabis, to the detriment of her own crop.
In another incident, Rotman’s attorney threatened to file a report with the county and demand reimbursement for any damage to the marijuana plants if a nearby vegetable grower’s pesticide sprayer did not notify Rotman. when he planned to spray. Rotman subsequently made an agreement with the farmer’s landlord, agreeing not to sue him, his tenant or the sprayer for any “overspray” of the pesticide. Rotman also promised to pay the landlord more than his farmer paid in rent, if the tenant were to opt out of the lease.
Anderle found that the threat of liability related to pesticide ‘drift’ and potential damage to wine grapes from a ‘terpene odor’ – ‘even if it was shown to exist’ – were not “Agricultural land use conflicts” as the coalition claims, but rather economic impacts not covered by state environmental legislation.
The judge also upheld the county’s decision to designate the cultivation of cannabis as an “agricultural use,” thereby making Busy Bee eligible for tax breaks under the Williamson Act, the state law that helps protect the land. agricultural development.
Anderle dismissed the coalition’s claim that under this law the county should have investigated Busy Bee’s compatibility with nearby row crops, avocado orchards and vineyards. There was no evidence, the judge said, that these farms, all protected by Williamson law and in operation for many years, would go bankrupt due to conflicts with cannabis.
Regarding “the terpenic smell”, the judge said that “speculation is not substantial evidence”. He cited Busy Bee’s studies showing that “no terpene could be detected outside the limits of the good”.
Finally, in a final blow to the case against the county and Busy Bee’s, the judge dismissed the coalition’s claim that the county violated its own zoning ordinances by allowing Busy Bee’s to illegally spread marijuana. medicinal “legal and non-compliant” permit.
In California alone, the county allowed medicinal cannabis producers to continue operating after the start of 2016 under “legal and non-compliant status” and a temporary state business license, provided they apply for a license. county zoning and county business license. In November 2016, voters in California legalized the sale, use, and cultivation of recreational marijuana for adults.
In its lawsuits, the coalition argues that many of the county’s ancient medicinal “crops” have been extended well beyond their area as of early 2016. But the county is not following up.
During the county hearings on the Busy Bee project, displaying Google Earth photos, Chytilo estimated that the operation went from a greenhouse in 2015 to six hoops and 16 greenhouses in 2018. Last year, the county has retroactively approved the expansion by granting zoning. permit for Busy Bee’s; County planners explained that this was just what they would normally do, for example, in a case involving the illegal addition of a third chamber. Chytilo said a retroactive license “encourages bad actors.”
In Tuesday’s decision, Anderle disagreed.
“Local governments have the discretion to decide how to allocate their limited budgets, including focusing their efforts on bringing properties into compliance rather than investigating past violations of non-compliant legal use by those who meet the restrictions. zoning and development standards under the Cannabis Regulations, ”he said. “… The petitioner’s arguments regarding violations of planning and zoning law fail.”
Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance reporter in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her stories to several local publications at the same time, free of charge.
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