How the marijuana boom has changed the landscape of California Valley

Pot operations turned California Valley into 'a circus'

The blossoming of marijuana farms in California Valley, about 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo, has changed the rural community’s physical and cultural landscape. SLO County Sheriff’s deputies are trying to regulate growing sites and protect the s
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The blossoming of marijuana farms in California Valley, about 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo, has changed the rural community’s physical and cultural landscape. SLO County Sheriff’s deputies are trying to regulate growing sites and protect the s

“Rumor is, someone got shot here last week,” San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Detective Greg Beuer told 30 or so residents gathered in California Valley this fall for an update on marijuana cultivation in the sparsely populated area.

“But I’ve heard it from too many people to think it’s just a rumor,” he quickly added.

Although that shooting was never proven, there’s no question that life has changed dramatically for the 200 to 300 residents since the region began experiencing a major pot boom last spring.

Known for the expansive Carrizo Plains National Monument and the stunning wildflower bloom every spring, the area has long been little more than a curiosity and possible day-trip destination for most SLO County residents. It’s literally out in the middle of nowhere.

But with the influx of marijuana growers, that changed.

The community’s population at least doubled temporarily.

Growers suddenly began lining up in trucks at the California Valley Community Service District office to fill 250-gallon water containers for their thirsty plants — which stressed the water supply that some residents have historically depended on to live.

And calls for service from the Sheriff’s Office, which usually peak in the double-digits, had climbed to 181 as of Oct. 20 — compared to 84 calls in all of 2015.

“We’d normally get your typical calls, like domestic violence, or a burglary on a property that’s been left vacant for a while,” said Sheriff’s patrol Deputy John McKenney. “(This year) we’ve heard a lot more shots-fired calls. We had a robbery call yesterday, and an individual advised that he was tied and robbed at gunpoint.”

The activity brought other concerns as well. According to the Sheriff’s Office, area residents have witnessed shootings, kidnappings and mysterious aircraft landings — none of which have resulted in any arrests. Illegal and environmentally harmful pesticides have been discovered, possibly resulting in the deaths of sensitive wildlife that live in the valley.

The run on vacant properties to cultivate marijuana did prompt county action: It fast-tracked an emergency ordinance to cap the number of grows in rural areas, identify their owners, and ensure they’re following the rules.

Rumor is, someone got shot here last week.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Detective Greg Beuer

With this year’s harvest over, many of the growers have left, and county officials say they now have rules in place to deal with what is almost sure to be another fertile season next year.

“This isn’t the Wild West anymore,” Beuer told the crowd gathered Oct. 4.

That would please some longtime residents. A handmade sign resting atop the board of directors’ table expressed their feelings succinctly: “Make California Valley Great Again.”

“We want this to go back to being a community,” Beuer said.

No accidental visitors

California Valley is located some 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo. Its main road — unpaved Soda Lake Road — juts southeast from Highway 58 through the Carrizo Plain toward Highway 166, splitting the community into two.

On the western side, known as the Caliente Range, lies the California Valley Community Services District office and a subdivision of hundreds of mostly undeveloped parcels. On the eastern side, where the Temblor Range stretches to the San Andreas Fault, even fewer properties are developed, due mostly to the non-potable brackish groundwater found there. Scattered throughout both sides are roughly 150 established residences, according to district general manager Vera Starr, who’s lived in the valley since 2007 and was hired as manager last year.

The Topaz Solar Farm and California Valley Solar Ranch lie off Highway 58 north of the Carrizo Plain, together staffing about 30 daily workers.

There are no accidental visitors.

In 1964, a developer seeking to build a “retirement paradise” in the valley purchased 7,500 acres south of Highway 58 and divided the area into 2.5-acre parcels, according to the Santa Margarita Historical Society. The vast majority of those parcels remain empty today.

There are no paved roads or street lights, no gas stations or taverns, just a single “motel” on Soda Lake Road, which, historically, has sat empty.

According to the San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder’s Office, there were 159 registered voters in California Valley as of Oct. 20, of whom about 37 percent were registered Republicans, 35 percent were Democrats, and the rest were mostly No Party Preference.

Services are scant. The CSD provides garbage and road maintenance, and Cal Fire has a substation next to the district office. The nearest sheriff’s substation is in Templeton, more than 50 miles away, with a response time of roughly 45 minutes.

Sheriff’s Deputy McKenney has been assigned to the valley for several years. When residents need him, many will call his cell directly rather than hassle with dispatch. With the marijuana grows this year, he has had more robbery and shots-fired calls.

Two months ago, a resident called, saying he had witnessed a single-engine plane land near the district office. An unidentified man was seen loading two full garbage bags onto the plane and receiving a satchel in return before the craft flew off, the witness reported.

“With the increase of this huge cash crop, comes extra crime,” McKenney said.

The green rush

With much of the year’s marijuana already harvested, most growers had left the valley as of late October.

Vacated grow sites pepper the landscape, and chain-link fences rise 6 feet high from seemingly random spots on the otherwise flush valley. Green cloth tarps, frayed and battered by the incessant wind, flap loosely over the fencing, revealing rows of empty barrels of soil inside the rectangular, 2.5-acre lots.

Vehicles sit abandoned on some of the properties, collecting dust. Only in a handful of properties can marijuana leaves still be seen peeking over the tops of fences.

The marijuana growing season lasts from spring until fall. McKenney estimates that about 20 or so grows existed at the beginning of 2016, but by June they numbered well over 100, manned mostly by residents from the Central Valley, but also by people from as far away as Minnesota, he said.

All of a sudden we started seeing farms sprout out of nowhere.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Deputy John McKenney

“All of a sudden we started seeing farms sprout out of nowhere,” McKenney said. “Most of these individuals seemed like very nice people, extremely polite, like a mom-and-pop operation.”

Megan Burgett, a Realtor with North County-based Century 21 Hometown Realty, began receiving a “frenzy” of calls last spring from people interested in purchasing land.

In 2015, Burgett said, her agency sold nine houses and 28 undeveloped parcels, the cheapest lot selling for $1,750 and the most expensive selling for $18,000. So far this year, she said she’s sold 10 homes and 113 vacant lots, with prices ranging from $3,000 to roughly $75,000.

She said the majority of her clients last year came from the Fresno area.

When the county caught on to the boom, it sent out police and code enforcement teams to contact the farmers, ensuring properties were in compliance with medical marijuana laws, as well as building and other regulations. Many lots had no fencing, and others had RVs and trailers in the same lots as the grows.

The county then sent letters detailing necessary improvements and telling the owners they would be fined if they didn’t comply.

“When we went out a couple months later, I would say there was about 70 percent compliance,” McKenney said. “The residents went out of their way to get rid of the shacks, the RVs. Some obviously complained, but I didn’t have any issues with them.”

In order to comply, some growers drove their trailers out into the hills and simply abandoned them.

The county is also concerned with environmental impacts.

For the last 14 years, Det. Beuer has dealt mostly with other secret marijuana grows in the county’s more wooded rural areas where key concerns were harmful pesticides and other toxins contaminating groundwater, creeks and streams.

The same issue exists in California Valley, he said, where some growers left out toxic chemicals and pesticides to kill anything that might disturb the grow, such as the endangered San Joaquin antelope squirrel and the giant kangaroo rat.

Beuer said he and California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers found poisoned animal carcasses throughout the valley.

“About half the land out here is mitigated land and sensitive habitat,” he said. “There are a lot of endangered species and a lot of decent people out here.”

New county rules

Beuer said this is not the first pot boom in California Valley. In 2014, five large marijuana grows were established — the largest with some 18,000 plants — by growers from Fresno County, which had then banned all outdoor marijuana cultivation, he said. That was easier to deal with, Beuer said, because the growers were trespassing on private property. Several arrests were made, and the farms disappeared.

This year, however, the growers mostly followed state medical marijuana laws and cultivated properties under the direction of the landowners.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, largely unaware of what was going on, passed an urgency ordinance in September that prohibited the creation of any new marijuana grows in unincorporated parts of the county. There are an estimated 500 legal grows across the county, according to county staff, and establishing the rules prepared the county for the legalization of recreational marijuana when voters passed Proposition 64 on Tuesday.

Under the new rules, existing grows could remain if they prove they were in the ground before Aug. 23. Other criteria, such as the need for a 6-foot-high fence around the grow, was established as well as the requirement that growers register with the county.

Last month, the board extended that ordinance through August 2017; it could be extended once more, should a permanent ordinance not be ready.

Growers have until Nov. 18 to register with the county. According to Assistant County Administrative Officer Guy Savage, 52 people had applied to register as of Thursday.

Not everyone was pleased with the law.

“I tend to believe a certain number of people decided that just wasn’t going to work for them and left,” McKenney said.

Realtor Burgett said she had five clients cancel escrow after the ordinance was adopted. She now receives about a call a week, she said, but most prospective clients lose interest when she informs them of the new rules.

Water woes

If the growers don’t return in similar numbers next year, that would be OK with some at the CSD, whose tight budget for maintaining roads took a hit with the added traffic.

The influx of growers also exacerbated an already-sensitive water situation. Historically, the district office has made its water spigots available, free of charge, to residents whose property has no access to clean water.

But as many growers began filling their 250- to 300-gallon water containers at the district office instead of digging wells, the district shut off the spigots by September to protect the district’s supply. Residents who need the water must make an appointment to obtain it.

To be sure, some new wells were dug. Between January and September, 13 wells were drilled in the valley, according to San Luis Obispo County Environmental Health Services. The agency received an additional five applications for well permits, which were pending as of Sept. 1. In contrast, just two wells were drilled in all of 2015.

An economic bright spot

Despite all the negatives, several residents who spoke to The Tribune said the growers had a positive effect on the community by stimulating the local economy. The motel, residents say, was full all summer. And with the demand, some residents went into the water-selling business.

People have finally found a purpose for this wasteland and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Larry Montenegro, California Valley resident

Larry Montenegro has lived in California Valley since the mid-1980s after reading property listings in a real estate magazine. He now owns three parcels in the valley, and says it’s a safe environment for he and his wife to raise their five sons.

But it’s a hard living, Montenegro said. When the 2008 economic recession hit and his construction business dried up, he tried to establish an auto shop in the valley but found most residents there lived off Social Security or disability and there simply wasn’t the business. He said he was facing tough economic decisions before the growers arrived.

When they did, some hired him to help build their fencing, others to clear out vegetation and debris from their lots. Eventually, they realized he had water.

“They started asking for water, and we have three different wells, so they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you deliver water and we’ll pay you?” he said.

So he did.

“It’s not just me. A lot of residents are benefiting from this. Look at the motel — I’ve never seen it so full,” he added. “It’s bringing life to the community.”

But he said that the county’s ordinance has made it cumbersome for growers and he fears many won’t be coming back next year.

“People have finally found a purpose for this wasteland, and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Montenegro said. “We can’t be stuck in the 1960s out there.”