Neighborhood Marijuana Ordinance Hikes Code Unit Cases

The county’s small-parcel marijuana ordinance has significantly increased the workload of its Code Enforcement Unit, and supervisors support changing it to make it easier to enforce.

The unit’s 2015 statistics were presented to the Board of Supervisors at its March 22 meeting. Code Enforcement Investigator Jeff Conner said Measure Z sales tax funding has allowed the unit to add a code compliance officer and a part-time office manager to its staffing.

The new staff members weren’t hired until last December, Conner said, and they’ll be useful this year as the county’s ordinance regulating neighborhood-scale medical marijuana grows has driven up the number of cases the unit deals with.

Last year was the first year of the ordinance’s implementation and Conner outlined its contribution to the overall growth in the unit’s workload.

He told supervisor that 39 referrals were fielded from the county’s Environmental Health Division and its Planning and Building Department. That compares to 23 referrals the previous year.

In addition, the unit got 30 complaints alleging violations of the small-parcel marijuana ordinance. “So we’ve had a significantly larger caseload than in previous years,” Conner said.

He added that the “vast majority” of complaints about marijuana grows in neighborhoods came from Shelter Cove and Willow Creek. He said that of the 30 marijuana-related complaints, 11 were deemed to be unfounded because the grows were in compliance with the ordinance.

One case in Shelter Cove couldn’t be enforced because the parcel in question is in the county’s coastal zone and the state’s Coastal Commission hasn’t approved the county’s ordinance yet.

Conner said another complaint from the Scotia area was withdrawn by the person who filed it due to fear of retaliation.

Seventeen grow parcels were abated, Conner reported, with three of the abatements carried out by the county’s Sheriff’s Office. Thirteen parcels were abated by their owners through removal of plants.

Of the 30 marijuana cases, 28 are closed and two await cost recovery, said Conner.

But the unit’s overall rate of case closures is low compared to the numbers of added cases.

“Unfortunately, 2015 continued a trend that we’ve seen in recent years where we’ve opened more cases than we’ve been able to close,” he continued, added that last year’s “net gain” was 14 cases and 148 cases remained open at the end of the year.

Detailing the 2015 workload increase, Conner said 22 inspection and abatement warrants were obtained, compared to only five the previous year. Marijuana grow-related cases accounted for 15 of the warrants.

Conner said only three or four of the inspections were done under “no notice” warrants, which have been controversial in the recent past.

Enforcement of the small-parcel grow ordinance has some obstacles. When Supervisor Estelle Fennell noted that most of the marijuana cases were closed, Conner said “one of the most common tactics that’s used by growers after they’ve received a notice is an attempt to stall and to try and delay the process until they can harvest their plants.”

Conner said there isn’t “a way around that” and added, “It’s not immediately answering the expectations of some of their neighbors — the odors are still there, the traffic is still there.”

This year’s additional staff may allow the unit to “work just a little bit faster,” he continued.

Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said civil rights have to be balanced and “those things take some time to make sure we’re not doing the wrong thing.” He advised residents to call in complaints sooner, before plants are in full bloom.

But Conner said the small-parcel ordinance’s use of canopy area as a cultivation gauge complicates early response. He told supervisors that on at least two occasions, neighbors called in complaints early in the grow season while plants were small and within the neighborhood ordinance’s allowable canopy area.

Once the plants got bigger, a second round of complaints drew follow-up inspections and determinations that the canopy areas surpassed the ordinance’s requirements, he continued.

Conner suggested having the small-parcel ordinance mirror the county’s recently approved commercial medical marijuana ordinance, which uses grow area size as a volume gauge.

Supervisors are interested in revising the neighborhood grow ordinance accordingly and Sundberg suggested referring potential changes to the board’s Medical Marijuana Subcommittee, which he’s on along with Fennell.

Board Chair Mark Lovelace said the takeaway from Conner’s presentation is that first year implementation or the small-parcel ordinance has shown that changes need to be made to it to facilitate its enforcement.