Pot grades

County wants state’s help in controlling marijuana gardens

An aerial view of marijuana grows and a greenhouse off Crystal Ranch Road near Feather Falls.

An aerial view of marijuana grows and a greenhouse off Crystal Ranch Road near Feather Falls.


A request by Butte County for help from the state in getting a handle on large marijuana gardens in the local foothills has been rebuffed. On May 7, a letter signed by Supervisor Bill Connelly was sent to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board expressing concern about environmental damage caused by big pot-growing operations. The letter asked that the state step in and help enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

“Butte County has its share of large marijuana grow sites,” the letter reads. “The development of these sites ha[s], in many cases, disturbed over one acre of soil and include[s] buildings and other improvements that support these large marijuana-growing operations without proper local and state permits.”

The letter points out that the state regulates mining, industrial and construction operations with strict guidelines, and that the same should be done for large marijuana gardens.

But Ken Landau, the assistant executive officer for the RWQCB, said in a May 24 phone interview that the board will not get directly involved in policing pot farms.

“Yes, there is a real issue with these marijuana operations,” he said. “However, our staff are not armed peace officers, and we cannot be sending them into places where their lives will be at risk. We will provide technical support on evaluating things, but they simply can’t be out on the front lines going into these places.”

The RWQCB’s response to the county’s request had not yet been sent, Landau said. When contacted, Tom Fossum, land-development manager for the county’s Department of Public Works, said that since he had not yet seen the response, he could not comment.

On May 7, Fossum presented the Butte County Board of Supervisors with a verbal report and slideshow on the matter. “This past spring, we’ve seen quite a bit of grading in the foothills, much of it without permits,” Fossum told the board.

“We’ve been asking the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board for their support in enforcing some of the rules that we believe they are required to [enforce].” He said a lack of support from the state—because the RWQCB considers the grows to be agricultural operations—was an ongoing problem.

“We believe these operations are just like any other business operation that is required to have a structure stormwater permit and, if need be, an industrial stormwater permit,” Fossum said.

He showed aerial photos of graded acres—and, in some cases, greenhouses under construction—in the Paradise, Magalia and Concow areas, as well as land near Forbestown and Feather Falls.

A site off Jordan Hill Road, east of Paradise and near the Feather River, was discovered in early April. Fossum said his department estimates more than about 2,150 cubic yards of soil have been moved, violating the county’s limit of displacing 1,000 cubic yards without a permit, as called for in the county’s grading ordinance that was adopted in 2009. Even so, a project that involves excavating more than 50 cubic yards requires the landowner to first apply for an exemption.

A second site on the same piece of property includes a freshly plowed road and more than 1,000 cubic yards of excavated soil.

To the south, off Crystal Ranch Road near Lake Oroville, is a site where a significant amount of erosion took place over the winter; eroded material from the site could make its way to the creeks that feed the lake, Fossum pointed out.

None of the sites have residences on them, he said, but some do have motor homes, travel trailers and greenhouses, including one that measures 70 feet long and 20 feet wide. At that site, off Lakeview Terrace near Feather Falls, 10,000 cubic yards of soil have been moved, burying tree trunks up to 15 feet deep.

Supervisor Maureen Kirk said the RWQCB would not hesitate to go after a builder who had made such violations, and called the situation “incredible.” Supervisor Larry Wahl asked if the Department of Public Works had shut down any of the operations. Fossum said it was in the process of doing so, but could certainly use the state’s help.

Mike Crump, the county’s director of public works, said the RWQCB has ignored the county’s requests for help.

“We’ve worked with the local office [in Redding], and they sent it up the chain and we have not really heard any response,” he said. “They are kind of saying, ‘We think it’s ag and so they are exempt.’ We haven’t really received any reason. Hopefully with a letter they’ll take this seriously and start enforcing the rules that they are making everybody else comply with. If nothing else, maybe we’ll get a better reason of why they chose not to go after this.”

Crump said his department is trying to control the gardens by enforcing the county’s soil-grading ordinance, and that the Butte County District Attorney’s Office is looking into possible environmental violations.

“But we think the state should be a partner in this,” he said.

Supervisor Connelly also expressed frustration.

“I don’t understand why the state won’t step in like they would if it was a developer or a contractor or the county,” he said. “They’ve come after us for building a road. I just don’t understand why they are not helping.”

Local environmental activist Kelly Meagher, a strong supporter of the value of medicinal marijuana, finds himself in an ironic position with the matter. More than 20 years ago he chained himself to a gate in protest of grading near his home in Butte Creek Canyon.

“A developer was so upset with the county he just thought he’d knock all these big trees down and make holes in the ground,” Meagher recalled. “I had to chain myself to a gate, and the county came up with a really wimpy grading ordinance for the foothills.”

He said the local farmers objected to such an ordinance, which led to the ag exemption.

“They’ve adopted a new one, but it’s obvious it doesn’t address these kinds of issues,” he said.

Meagher’s seen the photos, and questions if the sites are all for pot gardens.

“If it’s true, and they want to grow dope and damage the environment, then they are frickin’ idiots,” he said. “I am totally opposed to what they are doing.”