Cultivation controversy

Discussion of proposed marijuana ordinance brings Butte County residents out of the cities, towns and hills

Impassioned pot growers—and a few of their neighbors—flooded the Butte County Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday to offer comments on a medical-marijuana cultivation ordinance.

Impassioned pot growers—and a few of their neighbors—flooded the Butte County Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday to offer comments on a medical-marijuana cultivation ordinance.

Photo By Meredith J. Graham

Another big meeting:
The Chico City Council will be discussing potential municipal code amendments related to the cultivation, processing and distribution of medical cannabis in Chico during the panel’s next regular meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, in council chambers, 421 Main St.

After discussion of a proposed marijuana-cultivation ordinance at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, one thing was for sure: There’s a ton of people in Butte County who are willing to fight for their right to grow their medicine.

Hundreds flooded the board’s chambers Tuesday (Feb. 22), many armed with signs and prepared speeches regarding the ordinance, which, among other things, would create registration fees and growing restrictions based on lot size. Chief among their concerns were, well, just about everything—from fees (ranging from $832-$1,231 a year for lots larger than an acre), to setbacks that seemed unmanageable in some cases, to the limitation on the number of plants allowed to be grown, to being required to register with the county, to the simple fact that the panel that drafted the ordinance did not include anyone from the growing community.

In fact, several of the speakers referred to the beginning of the meeting—a presentation by District Attorney Mike Ramsey and Sheriff Jerry Smith that included photos of Butte County grow sites—and wondered aloud why a land-use ordinance was not being presented by county counsel or code enforcement. It set the tone, then, for what amounted to a room full of marijuana growers vs. the Board of Supervisors and the D.A.

“This is a declaration of war, designed to make pot smokers into second-class citizens,” said Raymond Sperry. “We will fight back.”

There were at least a dozen threats of recall elections, lawsuits and even impeachment. Others, many on disability or other fixed income, simply said the fees were too high. “If you pass this, you’ll only be hurting the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick,” one man told the board.

“These people can’t afford what you want to charge them,” Seeva Cherms added.

They were referring to two fees—in addition to the registration fee, the ordinance calls for the purchase of a $44 identification zip tie per plant.

The fees—in fact, the entire ordinance—were based on similar legislation in Mendocino County, explained Director of Development Services Tim Snellings at the beginning of the meeting. He said the fees recommended for Butte County—which are based on the amount of staff time it will take to enforce the ordinance—are much lower than those in Mendocino.

“We’re not making this up,” Snellings said.

Audience members who stood up to speak—there were so many, the stack of comment cards board Chairman Steve Lambert held in front of him was more than an inch thick—brought up issues with setbacks, the requirement of growers to register with the county, and the number of plants they’d be allowed to grow.

Some of the setbacks seemed unreasonable, many people said. For lots between 1 and 20 acres, plants must be set back 100 feet from the property line, but that seems prohibitive for the small or oddly shaped lots, some argued. As for requiring everyone involved in the grow to register their doctor’s recommendation with the county, well, that just wasn’t very likely, a few people said.

“A lot of these people, they don’t trust the system, and they don’t trust you,” said Rick Tognoli, who runs a collective near Chico.

“You’re going to cause a lot of good people to go corrupt,” a man added.

Many public speakers protested the limitation on the number of plants people would be able to grow, saying it would make growing the amount they need difficult to impossible. For example, on a lot smaller than an acre, just two plants would be allowed (though the registration fees are not required). On larger parcels, that number grows, but only very large, 160-plus-acre lots would allow for large collectives (up to 99 plants). Lots between 20 and 160 acres were given a limit of 30 plants, and between 1 and 20, 12.

A Paradise man pleaded with the board: “I need my six plants on my quarter-acre. This is greatly intruding on my property rights.”

“I have children, so I do not grow at home,” explained another. “There are five of us growing on less than an acre.”

“I would die if I had to comply with this,” said Ryan Landers, a 40-year-old Sacramento medical-marijuana activist with “full-blown AIDS.” His story, like that of Jill Clarkson, a Magalia woman who turned to medical marijuana after getting into a near-fatal car accident and then getting diagnosed with cancer, resonated with the crowd, who offered loud rounds of applause after they spoke.

“There are a lot of people who are violating these laws,” Clarkson said, referring to laws already in place in California. “But there are more people behind me who are just patients who need their medicine.”

After 5 1/2 hours of discussion, the board, to the delight of the much thinned-out audience, decided against taking action on the ordinance right away.

Supervisors Lambert, Bill Connelly and Kim Yamaguchi all talked about constituents who did not turn out in force at the meeting but feel strongly that their ability to enjoy their homes had been compromised by pot-growing neighbors. The smell, especially during harvest time, can be particularly hard to live with, they said.

“It’s a neighbor issue,” Connelly summed up. “We have to figure out how we balance compassion with people’s right to enjoy their home.”

Yamaguchi got applause when he suggested taking a fresh look at the zip-tie fee, and possibly only requiring it for gardens with more than six plants.

Supervisor Larry Wahl got applause, as well, when he said, “The costs of the fees will encourage avoidance and create unintended consequences that will push people to sales [rather than growing].”

In the end, the board asked County Counsel Bruce Alpert to revise the ordinance and take into consideration the discussion on setbacks, particularly for small lots, and fees. Alpert said his staff would need at least 30 days before presenting an amended version to the board.

Lambert closed the meeting with this piece of advice: “Be respectful of your neighbors. Deal with this as good neighbors.”