County Settles With HUMMAP on Marijuana Lawsuit

A small-scale marijuana farming group’s lawsuit challenging the county’s commercial marijuana production ordinance has been settled and includes a $35,000 payment for the group’s legal fees.
But the chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors believes the settlement doesn’t change anything because its main aspect — a commitment to re-do the ordinance under a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) — was promised before the legal action was taken.
The Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project (HUMMAP) filed a lawsuit against the county on Feb. 26, alleging that the ordinance doesn’t comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.
Announced following a closed session approval at the July 5 Board of Supervisors meeting, the settlement makes formal the county’s previously-stated intent to do an EIR for a new version of the ordinance.
It also clarifies the ordinance’s noise restrictions and defines carbon credits as being certified by the California Air Resources Board or other state-level regulatory agencies.
A HUMMAP press release states that a “list of minor and technical amendments to the ordinance” was also agreed upon.
“Many of the small flaws were spotted by HUMMAP,” the release states. “These flaws attest to the rush with which the ordinance was initially considered.”
The release also states that the county has agreed to not accept permit applications past the ordinance’s Dec. 31 deadline unless a full EIR is done.
An EIR process was promised as the ordinance was being developed and work on it began shortly after the ordinance was approved. The full environmental review will address a variety of concerns and include a more thorough analysis of the ordinance’s most controversial aspect — its permitting structure and the grow sizes within it.
Under the ordinance, production of commercial medical marijuana is governed under three permitting categories, with the most streamlined permit — a non-discretionary ministerial permit, which doesn’t require public hearings or noticing of neighbors — applied to operations that conform to certain grow area size, parcel size and zoning conditions.
HUMMAP opposes ministerial permits for grow areas that exceed 3,000 square feet. In an interview, Robert Sutherland, one of the group’s founding members, said that issue is “one of many that will be looked at closely and hopefully there will be some informed input on whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea.”
He added, “I think we know what the big trade groups are going to say but what we want to know is what the (California) Department of Fish and Wildlife and the other wildlife agencies are going to say.”
Sutherland said HUMMAP “felt the environmental groups kind of sold out on the ordinance” and “we are very anxious that they make a responsible showing once the EIR comes around.”
Board of Supervisors Chair Mark Lovelace described the settlement as being ineffectual. “The only significant achievement of this lawsuit is that the county’s out $35,000,” he said. “It does not change anything that the county’s doing — all the agreements in the settlement are things that the county was already intending to do, or bound to do, or had already taken steps to do before they even filed the lawsuit … and it cost us $35,000 to get there.” 
Asked why the settlement and the legal fee payout were agreed to, Lovelace said protracting the legal process would have been more expensive than settling the case at this point.
He agrees that marijuana production has intense impacts but he said those effects have been longstanding. The ordinance was put in place under a tight timeframe in order to “reduce the harm that’s already happening, for this year — for this year’s cultivation cycle,” he continued.
Since the ordinance took effect in late February, about 70 commercial marijuana permit applications have been filed. “By having this in place, we have reduced the harm,” Lovelace said. “Even if it’s a small subset of the growers that are out there, these are folks that would not have been regulated in the past and would not have met these conditions if we did not have this ordinance in place.”
Sutherland views the upcoming EIR process as a means of limiting what he described as “the Sonoma-ization of Humboldt County” through marijuana production allowances.
“And just as Sonoma County was eventually, over time, totally destroyed as a natural environment, that can happen here and we’d like to see some foresight applied,” he said.
Asked about the county’s payment of $35,000 for HUMMAP’s legal fees, Sutherland said the award probably doesn’t fully cover all the group’s expenses.
He believes the ultimate outcome of the county’s marijuana regulation process will define overall quality of life and the fate of the environment. “This is a really huge issue and it’s very important to be looking at it closely –— we stand on the threshold of destroying or saving our county,” said Sutherland.
Lovelace said preparation of an EIR has begun and a project description has been completed. He expects that public scoping hearings on a draft EIR will begin sometime this fall.