Chronic issues

Tempers flare as supervisors consider pot-related items

Butte County Supervisors Steve Lambert (left) and Larry Wahl were at odds regarding the county’s marijuana-cultivation ordinance during the Dec. 10 supervisors’ meeting.

Butte County Supervisors Steve Lambert (left) and Larry Wahl were at odds regarding the county’s marijuana-cultivation ordinance during the Dec. 10 supervisors’ meeting.

Photo By Howard Hardee

Appropriately, the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting in Oroville on Tuesday, Dec. 10—the last one of 2013—involved two of the most significant issues to come before the board this year.

The supervisors considered the marijuana-cultivation ordinance passed earlier this year, as well as pending changes to the grading ordinance—both hot-button issues related to pot. The item regarding the cultivation ordinance prompted impassioned arguments from members of the public and a few snappy retorts from the supervisors themselves.

In a 4-1 vote—with Supervisor Larry Wahl dissenting—the panel approved three amendments to the marijuana-cultivation ordinance. The first two require any marijuana garden to be on a property with an “occupied legal residence” and permitted plumbing and sewage systems. The third amendment made violating the cultivation ordinance more costly—$500 a day for the first violation and $1,000 a day for any subsequent violations. Previously, fines ranged from $25 to $100 a day for a first violation, $100 to $200 per day for second violations, and up to $500 per day for each additional violation thereafter.

Though the amendments were minor—supervisors indicated that a broader discussion of possible changes to the ordinance will be held in January—public comments were passionate. Several of those who spoke blamed the supervisors directly for Butte County’s booming marijuana-cultivation industry and criticized the current ordinance’s lack of restrictions.

“The supervisors aren’t listening,” one speaker said. “It’s not sinking in how bad the problem is out there. In the woods, it’s chaos!”

“The supervisors are well aware of the destruction caused by these large legal grows,” said another. “The board continuously supports and votes in favor of the pot trade. … It’s disgusting.”

For his part, Wahl agreed that the board has “abdicated its responsibility to the people,” and that the amendments made on Tuesday served only to “kick the can down the road,” a comment that prompted a handful of cheers from the audience.

Supervisor Steve Lambert’s response: “It’s always great to pander to the crowd.”

Lambert maintained that, while many citizens attending the meeting were in favor of tighter restrictions, the majority of the county’s voters are not. He reminded the audience that the supervisors’ first attempt at crafting a marijuana-cultivation ordinance was “very restrictive,” but was overturned by a public referendum.

“It disappoints me when people come up and say we’re not trying to deal with this,” he said.

Meanwhile, pending changes to the county’s grading ordinance are largely in response to environmental damage caused by the grading activities of pot growers in the county’s eastern foothills.

During the supervisors’ Sept. 24 meeting, Mike Crump and Tom Fossum of the Department of Public Works had explained how their staff, due to approval of the marijuana-cultivation ordinance, became inundated with both grading-permit requests and complaints of harmful substances—the rodenticides, insecticides and fertilizers used by some pot farmers—working their way into creeks and Lake Oroville through erosion caused by grading.

Dealing with the surge of permit requests led Public Works staff to determine the grading ordinance was in need of improvement. Currently, a grading permit is required for any work involving the movement of more than 50 cubic yards of dirt, while any project exceeding 1,000 cubic yards requires a discretionary permit, which must be approved by the Planning Commission. Many local contractors—some of whom spoke during the Sept. 24 meeting—consider the lower limit of 50 cubic yards too restrictive.

In recent weeks, Public Works staff has been developing a code change based on grading ordinances adopted by neighboring counties. Under the recommendations considered by the supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting, the lower limit for projects requiring a grading permit would increase from 50 to 250 cubic yards, while the threshold for discretionary permits would remain at 1,000 cubic yards. Grading in four “special areas”—regulated flood plains, riparian areas, or anywhere with high potential for landslides or erosion—would also require a discretionary permit.

Just prior to the supervisors’ vote on whether to authorize staff to proceed as outlined, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey spoke as a member of the public, pointing to the potential environmental harm of raising the lower limit of grading permits to 250 cubic yards—enough dirt to fill 50 dump trucks. Projects in which that much material is moved “can do a lot of damage,” Ramsey argued, “whether you’re a pot farmer, a contractor or a grape farmer.”

Wahl then motioned to change the lower limit back to 50 cubic yards, a movement that passed—to groans of some contractors in the audience—by a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Bill Connelly dissenting.

A final draft of the revisions to the ordinance will be presented early next year.