Weeding through inspiration

Butte County’s medical-marijuana-cultivation ordinance is more costly and restrictive than the laws it’s based on

Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman says that, since a cultivation ordinance went into effect almost two years ago, he’s had fewer complaints about medical-marijuana gardens—and more time to investigate illegal grows.

Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman says that, since a cultivation ordinance went into effect almost two years ago, he’s had fewer complaints about medical-marijuana gardens—and more time to investigate illegal grows.

Photo By Sarah Baldik/The Ukiah Daily Journal/ZUMAPRESS.com

More pot talk:
The Butte County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss a revised version of the cultivation ordinance at a special May 4 meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Chico Elks Lodge (Manzanita Place). Also coming up in May will be further discussion in Paradise about an ordinance regulating medical-marijuana dispensaries and cooperative grows, both of which are currently banned.

Hundreds of medical-marijuana proponents made their voices heard last month when the Butte County Board of Supervisors held its first meeting outlining a proposed cultivation ordinance. They had a beef with several of the requirements, particularly the high cost of permits and the low number of plants allowed on certain-size parcels.

The ordinance was based on similar legislation in Mendocino and Tehama counties, County Counsel Bruce Alpert assured everyone.

So, how are those ordinances working for those other counties? Pretty well, it turns out. In fact, both counties have been sued over their legislation, and in both instances the counties won in court.

But, “loosely based on” would be a better way to characterize the relationship between Butte County’s draft ordinance and those in Tehama and Mendocino.

In Tehama County, if you have less than 20 acres, you can grow up to 12 plants; between 20 and 160 acres, you can have up to 30 plants; and on more than 160 acres you can grow up to 99 plants. A $40 fee is attached to each site. In Mendocino County, anyone can grow up to 25 plants without a permit. For more than that, the lot must be at least 5 acres in size, and a $1,500 “cooperative license” must be granted. In addition, each permitted plant requires a $50 zip tie.

Butte County’s ordinance borrowed from Tehama’s lot-size regulations and added one: on lots 1 acre or smaller, only two plants can be grown. It also borrowed from Mendocino’s zip-tie program, except it calls for ties (costing $40) on all plants on lots larger than an acre. Butte County’s ordinance also added a graduated permit fee, ranging from $832 to $1,231. So, a Butte County grower with a 1.5-acre lot and the maximum of 12 plants would pay $480 for 12 zip ties and $832 for a permit, equaling $1,312.

“We were looking at what would be reasonable to grow on a small lot with a next-door neighbor,” Alpert explained by phone earlier this week. “We were looking at what kinds of complaints and nuisances would be created. Obviously, on larger lots you can grow more with less disturbance to neighbors.”

In Mendocino County, as in Butte, illegal marijuana gardens are a huge problem. So when the Board of Supervisors passed a marijuana-cultivation ordinance there nearly two years ago, its intent was to decrease the number of complaints about legal grows while freeing up the sheriff’s time to go after criminals. So far, it seems to be working.

“This program is working only because there are people who wanted it to work,” explained Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman, referring not only to himself, but also the Board of Supervisors and the growers themselves. “Last year we had 18 cooperatives that went through an inspection process—these are people who met the criteria that Attorney General [Jerry] Brown set forth [in his medical-marijuana guidelines].”

That means anyone else is either growing only up to 25 plants or is growing illegally in the unincorporated areas.

“In Mendocino County last year, even though we had this program going, we still eradicated 641,000 marijuana plants,” Allman said. “[The ordinance] has freed up my time to go after large commercial marijuana grows.”

Just last week, Allman said, he got word that a decision on a lawsuit against the county challenging the ordinance upheld the legislation as written. In Tehama County, too, growers sued and the judge ruled in favor of the ordinance.

“We were not surprised,” said Arthur Wylene, assistant county counsel in Tehama County. He’d just received notice that the case was being appealed. “We think the law is pretty clear and we remain confident.”

At that February meeting in Oroville, Supervisors Bill Connelly and Kim Yamaguchi spoke to those in the audience, asking them simply to be good neighbors. That’s really what it seems to come down to.

“You have to take into account not only your needs but your neighbor’s needs,” Alpert explained by phone earlier this week. “When you’re not a good neighbor, these problems come up. If you choose to grow plants right up next to the fence, are you really creating a nuisance that doesn’t have to exist?”

Fredrick Johnson, a grower in Durham who heads up the newly formed Save Butte Growers Rights group, understands that point of view.

“I can understand not wanting pot hanging over your back yard, as a neighbor,” said Johnson, who started a Facebook page to get growers and other proponents together before the February supervisors meeting. “But on bigger lots, when they’re 5 or 6 acres, they’re more private.”

Johnson’s group hired an attorney to draft a list of proposed changes to the ordinance. He believes the supervisors are taking them into consideration, and Alpert confirmed that, in amending the document, “We’ve looked at issues of number of plants, setbacks and costs of permits.”

Alpert didn’t go into specifics regarding how the fees or number of plants allowed might be changed, but looking at Tehama and Mendocino counties, their ordinances are much more accommodating on both fronts.

“If we see a marijuana garden that’s causing environmental degradation, that’s a top priority,” Sheriff Allman said. With the ordinance in place to keep track of law-abiding growers, law enforcement has had more time to concentrate on the large grows that have not been permitted. Fewer complaints have come in since the new regulations went into effect.

“My intent is, sooner or later, law enforcement will have as much time to spend on methamphetamine and domestic violence as we do on marijuana,” he said.

Butte County is drafting its ordinance with similar goals in mind, though in the minds of growers like Johnson, “the ordinance presented … created unnecessary and costly regulation and failed to accommodate the needs and legal rights of patients and landowners.”

“I don’t know what form the final ordinance will take,” Alpert said. A special meeting will be held in May at Chico’s Manzanita Place—which will offer space for more public attendance—to discuss the amended ordinance. “Obviously it’s a very passionate subject for some people, and we’re trying to find a way to accommodate the most people.”