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Pot farms have trashed California Valley, county says as it files lawsuits against growers

San Luis Obispo County is suing alleged marijuana growers in California Valley, where a boom in cannabis cultivation has resulted in depleted water, trash and spilled portable toilets, court documents say.

Five lawsuits were filed this week in San Luis Obispo Superior Court after the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday authorized county counsel to begin litigation against marijuana growers who are accused of violating county code.

Those named in the lawsuits are accused of failing to register their grows with the county by Nov. 18, 2016, as required by the county’s temporary, emergency cannabis ordinance. A permanent ordinance to regulate commercial marijuana is in the works and may be adopted as soon as October. The latest draft prohibits commercial cannabis operations in all of the Carizzo Planning Area, where California Valley is located.

The lawsuits mark a significant shift in how the county is handling alleged illegal marijuana grows — with civil action as opposed to criminal.

If the court agrees with the county, the plants on the properties named in the lawsuits will be destroyed with a wood chipper, fencing and water containers will be removed, and restraining orders will be issued to stop grow operations.

Defendants could be fined up to $2,500 a day for violating county codes, and an additional $1,000 a day if they continue to operate after they are ordered to stop, according to the lawsuit and county staff.

“We really just want people to get into compliance,” said Guy Savage, assistant county administrative officer. “It’s not about the money. We want people to come into compliance with local laws that we’re going to be enforcing.”

More lawsuits against growers in other areas of the county will be filed soon, he said.

California Valley — about 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo — saw a surge in illegal growing operations last year, after adjacent counties restricted cannabis cultivation. Large fences, water storage tanks, hoop house structures and bags of potting soil are indicative of the grow sites that sometimes pop up overnight after a truck delivery.

In the filings, the county says an “influx of unregulated cannabis cultivation sites has caused significant impacts countywide, with many of the impacts concentrated in California Valley.”

Of the 500 registration forms received by the county, more than 300 are within the Carrizo Planning Area surrounding California Valley.

Many of the sites are abandoned following harvest, the lawsuit says.

“Cultivators leave behind trash (that is blown off the site by the wind), fertilizers, rodenticides, insecticides and other harmful chemicals.” In addition, “portable toilets that have toppled in the wind and spilled their contents.”

All of this, the lawsuit states, causes environmental degradation in the habitat of the giant kangaroo rat, antelope squirrel, San Joaquin kit fox and fairy shrimp, which are considered endangered species.

Although the area is secluded, it is not particularly suitable for any agricultural crop, and “the only large scale agricultural operation occurring in California Valley is cannabis cultivation,” the lawsuit states.

California Valley and the area around it near Carrizo Plains National Monument is dry, with poor soil and a lack of significant groundwater resources. Without good groundwater, the few areas that have potable water “are being drained for cannabis cultivation,” which may affect residents’ supply this summer.

Defendants named in the suits are Andrew Joseph Hafler in relation to land on Dorris Road; Sergio Arturo Perez Hernandez for land on Greybriar Trail; Isreal Lira for land on the 13000 block of Del Ray Road; Cherkaus Vang and Va Lor for land on the 13000 block of Gale Road; and Tomas R. Vargas for land on the 140000 block of Cunningham Road and on Cucoamonga Trail.

Code enforcement found the alleged illegal marijuana grows either by confidential informants, satellite images or by code inspectors called to the area. In one case, a registration application had been submitted by the grower but was denied because he had failed to provide evidence that the plants were present before Aug. 23, 2016, as required by the urgency ordinance.

The county’s emergency ordinance is scheduled to expire this September, but it will likely be extended. A new draft ordinance was released in May, and another draft will be released June 5.

The Planning Commission will hear comments on the ordinance July 27 and Aug. 10, if needed. Supervisors will likely discuss the ordinance on Oct. 3.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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