Helicopters and pot farms

Supervisors discuss enforcement of Measure A, approve amendments

Yes, the county is using helicopters to generate complaints against potentially out-of-compliance medical marijuana gardens.

That was a revelation at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday (Jan. 12), during discussions to evaluate the effectiveness of Measure A, the county’s medical marijuana cultivation ordinance, which has been in effect for a year. That revelation, however, took several attempts to be made clear.

“Did Code Enforcement use the helicopters?” Chairman Bill Connelly asked county Code Enforcement Supervisor Chris Jellison early on, during his presentation to the board.

“We worked with the sheriff’s department so we could get aerial, off of complaints that were either given to us by the public or law enforcement. [They were generally] sites that were hard to get to.”

Just to be clear, Connelly asked the question again: “You didn’t initiate the complaints from the helicopter?”

Jellison: “We follow up a complaint either by law enforcement or the public.”

Many members of the public, who showed up to comment on several amendments recommended for Measure A as well as the county’s Right to Farm Act, weren’t buying it.

“I live on 42 acres. You can’t see nothing of my grow unless you walk onto my property. But I got busted by Code Enforcement,” said Butte County resident Mickey Rogers. “They asked to go down and see my grow. They said, ‘We got an anonymous phone call complaint. But we also have photos from our helicopter. We flew over.’

“The bottom line is: I know my neighbors. Nobody called in a complaint—unless they walked onto my property, which is illegal. Anything said otherwise is a flat-assed lie.”

Following public comment, Connelly took the opportunity to back up Measure A enforcement. “I get a lot of calls about helicopters. People believe that the helicopters are being used by Code Enforcement as a primary complaint on the property,” he said. “I’ve heard both sides of it. A lot of times, it’s not who you think it is—because they call me. It could sometimes be a jealous neighbor, or a relative who’s mad at you. It’s not the intent [of Measure A] to have helicopters flying over looking for grows.”

But apparently, despite Jellison’s conviction that Code Enforcement is not using the helicopters to seek out grow sites, the county is, in fact, doing just that.

“To be really clear, law enforcement is who is flying the helicopter. Law enforcement is who is filing the complaint. They notify Code Enforcement and then Code Enforcement reacts,” explained Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn. “It’s a small distinction, but it’s an important one.”

Despite all the talk of the methods behind enforcement of Measure A, the thrust of the meeting was aimed at amending the ordinance for clarity and interpretation.

“Given what you were hoping to achieve, to cut back on a lot of grows in the foothills, there’s been a lot of success with this ordinance,” Hahn told the board. “Residents say they feel safer in their communities because of it.”

That said, there were some issues that affected the county’s ability to effectively enforce the ordinance. Currently, the ordinance calls for Code Enforcement to issue a 72-hour notice to owners of properties they believe to be out of compliance. At the same time, they can cite these owners on the spot. “It created a lot of unnecessary paperwork,” explained Chief Deputy County Counsel Brad Stephens. So, he recommended getting rid of citations and issuing fines based only on the 72-hour notices.

The board haggled over a change to the definition of “premises,” which Stephens suggested should include contiguous parcels owned and operated by the same person. The point was to disallow the same person from setting up multiple gardens on the same property. After much debate, it was clarified that if one parcel—with its own house, etc.—was rented to a separate individual that two grow areas would be permitted.

The final discussion point revolved around new state regulations that classify medical marijuana as an agricultural commodity. Stephens recommended that, in order to avoid potential lawsuits in the future, the county should add language to the Right to Farm Act that would disqualify the plant from being included in it.

The supervisors ultimately unanimously approved all recommended Measure A amendments as well as a change to the wording of the Right to Farm Act.