Planning Department Swamped With Marijuana Permits

Humboldt County’s recently-launched permitting of commercial medical marijuana operations is creating a work overload in its Planning Division and supervisors have approved hiring five additional employees.

Approval of adding three planners and two administrative employees to the department was unanimously gained at the March 22 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Following approval of the county’s commercial medical marijuana ordinance, cultivators and others in the industry were invited to submit permit applications. That process began in late February and county Planning Director Rob Wall told supervisors that phone inquiries about the process represent $28,000 in staff time costs and that together with the influx of applications have overloaded the department’s work capacity.

“It was made apparent by day four into our permitting program that we had received 20 percent of a year’s worth of work,” said Wall. “Currently, we’re in an all-hands-on-deck mode.”

A written staff report states that the new staffers will cost over $52,000 for rest of the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. The annual cost will be about $286,000 and according to the staff report, the expense will covered through permitting fees but “There may be a need for additional ongoing funding from the General Fund for activities related to medical cannabis permitting that are not covered by fees.”

Supervisor Rex Bohn said the new hires represent a 15 percent increase in Planning Division staffing. He said, “It seems like a big ask all of a sudden” and noted the General Plan Update is nearing final approval.

But Wall said the department’s work will intensify once the update is approved, as its programs and policies will go through an implementation phase.

In recent years, the Planning Division has improved its permit processing and Supervisor Estelle Fennell said she doesn’t want the marijuana permitting to interfere with that.

“We have really worked hard to provide an improved level of service to the public in general, on other issues aside from cannabis,” said Supervisor Estelle Fennell. “I don’t want this sudden rush of permit applications to take away from that level of service.”

Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said he’s heard that the medical marijuana permitting workload is delaying work on other permit applications.

Wall said that may indeed be happening.

“The problem with the advance planning staff that’s been pulled onto cannabis is that the phone calls are taking a lot of their time,” he continued, adding that “it’s not that the planners are setting [other applications] aside for cannabis permits purposely, they’ve just spent a lot of time on the phone and taking inquiries.”

The fees associated with medical marijuana permitting are the same for any other use under the county’s ministerial, special and conditional use permitting categories. Interim County Administrative Officer Cheryl Dillingham said that fees specific to commercial medical marijuana permits can be developed and adopted during the 2016-2017 budget process.

But some supervisors are concerned that increasing permit fees will discourage compliance with the county’s new medical marijuana permitting system. Fennell recommended that the Planning Division give the board a presentation on cost and revenue conditions in the near future.