Among Counties, Humboldt Sets the Pace for Marijuana Regulation

Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors has approved the first county ordinance in the state to advance local regulations for commercial production of medical marijuana.

The county’s labor-intensive ordinance was approved by supervisors at their Jan. 26 meeting and governs cultivation, manufacturing and processing of medical marijuana.

The ordinance takes effect 30 days from approval, putting it in effect within a now-voided March 1 deadline named in state law.

State legislators voted to remove the deadline on Jan. 28 but many municipalities in the state — including cities in Humboldt County — chose to ban commercial production rather than do what the county did.

Working under pressure, supervisors, planning commissioners and staff produced a complex ordinance that aims to control a pervasive but unruly industry.

Interim Planning Director Rob Wall said the ordinance can be amended as issues arise and his department is working on funding for a follow-up phase of regulation that will be done under a full Environmental Impact Report.

Supervisors’ final action also included approval of the basic environmental review that accompanies the ordinance. Predicting and negating impacts are challenging aspects of the ordinance’s development and Supervisor Estelle Fennell emphasized that regulations will evolve as commercial permitting proceeds.

“But for now, this is a first step,” she said.

The ordinance regulates all aspects of commercial activity but its main content sets size and performance standards for various levels of permitting.

For new outdoor and mixed light grows on level agricultural parcels of up to five acres, 10,000 square feet of growing area is allowed under basic ministerial permits. The idea is to channel startup grows into areas that are well-suited for crop production.

New grows are prohibited in timberland areas, a provision that will likely spare the ordinance from being targeted for litigation.

Existing grows on appropriately zoned parcels of over five acres will have to conform to multiple performance standards and will be approved under conditional use permits if the grow area exceeds 10,000 square feet. A maximum of one acre of growing area is allowable on agricultural parcels.

On ag parcels of less than acre, existing grows of up to 2,500 square feet will be allowed under conditional use permits.

Indoor grows of up 10,000 square feet are also allowed in the ordinance under various size and permit thresholds.

Demonstrating a relative lack of controversy, a public comment session only included a handful of speakers.

But Southern Humboldt resident Robert “Woods” Sutherland of the Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project warned that the ordinance’s environmental review improperly uses current conditions as a baseline in gauging potential effects.

Referring to the environmental effects of the “exponential growth” of the marijuana industry, Sutherland said declaring that the ordinance won’t intensify impacts is “a claim that authorizes significant and ongoing environmental damage negligently ignored by the county.”

But the mood in the packed supervisors’ chambers was otherwise celebratory. When supervisors carried out their approval vote, loud, lingering applause followed.