Advocacy Group Notices County on Marijuana Lawsuit

As the county opens permitting under a recently-approved commercial medical marijuana ordinance, a group that promotes homegrown cultivation values has signaled its intent to file a lawsuit to block implementation.

The Humboldt/Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project (HuMMAP), represented by Rachel Doughty of the Berkeley-based Greenfire law firm, filed a notice of the lawsuit on Feb. 23. The notice states that the group seeks a judgment declaring that the county’s ordinance is illegal and “therefore null and void.”

At issue is compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The notice states that the county and the Board of Supervisors “abused their discretion when they failed to comply with CEQA and that the ordinance must be set aside unless and until respondents comply with CEQA.”

The county’s ordinance is accompanied by a basic environmental review document, a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which declares that impacts of permitting will be reduced to less than significant levels through the ordinance’s implementation.

The issue of adequate environmental review was highly-debated as drafts of the ordinance were developed through Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hearings. The production allowances of a commission-approved version were scaled down by supervisors, who also responded to the concerns of environmental groups by banning new grows on Timber Production Zone parcels.

But Robert Sutherland, a founding member of HuMMAP, believes the ordinance’s permitting conditions are not in line with CEQA requirements. Under the ordinance, production of commercial medical marijuana is governed under three permitting categories, with the most streamlined permit — a non-discretionary ministerial permit — applied to operations that conform to certain grow area size, parcel size and zoning conditions.

“Our main demand at this point is that there be a moratorium on approvals of ministerial permits for grows over 3,000 square feet,” said Sutherland, adding that there’s no objection to the bigger grows if they’re done under special permits or conditional use permits, which involve noticing neighbors and public hearings.

“With both of those, there’s more latitude to discover environmental impacts and hear from the neighbors, too,” Sutherland continued.

Under the ordinance, new outdoor and mixed light grows of up to 10,000 square feet are allowed with ministerial permits on agricultural and forestland parcels of five to 320 acres.

Asked if he expects that environmental groups will support or join the lawsuit, Sutherland said that his group is “hoping the environmental groups join us because this is an effort made with regard to the health of a major future industry in this county and if they don’t think that’s important, people shouldn’t be supporting them.”

County planning officials, planning commissioners and supervisors have emphasized the ordinance’s oversight conditions — including numerous performance standards and annual inspections of grows — as means of flagging potential environmental impacts.

Sutherland doesn’t believe the proposed controls can be effectively implemented and he said his group’s request for a moratorium on the ordinance can be “easily remedied by our simple demands.”

He added, “The ball is in the county’s court.”

Asked for comment, County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck said he couldn’t provide it because an actual lawsuit hadn’t been filed.