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Faced with ‘losing everything,’ California Valley marijuana growers ask to harvest crop

San Luis Obispo County is issuing hefty fines and demanding cannabis cultivators remove plants in California Valley, where the regulated crop that was previously allowed was banned when new county rules took effect.

Now faced with economic loss, some growers who bought land and houses in the valley when medical cultivation was allowed are challenging the county and asking a judge to postpone action against them.

Their request: “Just let us harvest here so we don’t lose everything we have,” attorney Alan Karow told San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera Wednesday morning.

He was arguing a case he filed against the county on behalf of cultivator Scott Hurshuajer, who was ordered by a county hearings officer to pay thousands of dollars in fines and remove what code enforcement officers said was around 200 cannabis plants in four hoop houses on Asilomar Trail.

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The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors permanent ordinance bans marijuana grows that had been allowed in the California Valley under the earlier emergency ordinance. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A cannabis hearings officer found the site to be a public nuisance based on the county’s December 2017 cannabis land-use ordinance that prohibited cultivation in certain zones of the county, effectively banning it in California Valley. That ordinance replaced the county’s urgency ordinance, which allowed cultivation if the grower registered with the county.

At one point, the urgency ordinance was extended to September 2018, but the permanent ordinance overrode that.

The lawsuit asks a judge to set aside the order finding that code violations existed on Hurshuajer’s property and to prevent the county from abating the alleged nuisance, arguing in part that the cultivation is a legal nonconforming use.

The county says that’s not the case because it was never lawfully established prior to the county’s ordinance.

While the writ of mandate was filed on behalf of one person, Karow told The Tribune it’s a “test case” for a group of about 60 or 70 people — mostly immigrant farmers from Laos or Thailand — who call themselves the California Valley Cultural Growers Association.

“They have worked really, really hard. These are not wealthy people. They put everything they have into this,” Karow said.

He says that most of them came to California Valley when the Board of Supervisors in 2016 issued the urgency ordinance that asked cultivators to register with the county. The growers thought it was a sign that the county would allow cultivation there in the long term, and that belief was only reaffirmed when the county asked them to invest in things like expensive fencing to bring the sites up to code.

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Cannabis cultivation in California Valley, like this farm shown in a June 2017 photo, is no longer allowed as of December 31, 2017. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“It was a gamble. It shouldn’t be a type of a gamble where you lose everything,” Karow said. “Some of them have lost everything. They’re in dire straights. The fees are adding up to more than their property is worth.”

As of July, the county’s cannabis hearing officer had heard 18 cases of alleged illegal cannabis cultivation, and all resulted in abatement orders and punitive or administrative fines. On June 18, the officer imposed fines against Hurshuajer of $18,000, plus $100 per plant per day until the cultivation site was to be abated a few days later.

The county is waiting to pull the plants out until the judge issues a ruling.

Since the very first hearings, Karow said, the growers have said “We understand you can zone, but you have to understand the position you put us in here. You gave us permission you told us to do this and all we did is what you allowed us to do and all we’re asking for is reasonable time to harvest our grow. It’s medicine.”

Deputy County Counsel Brian Stack asked the judge to deny the writ, in part because Hurshuajer doesn’t have any rights to continue cultivating because the registrations were only valid for the life of the urgency ordinance.

La Barbara issued a tentative ruling on Wednesday, siding with the county and against Hurshuajer, but he will hear arguments Thursday morning before making a final decision.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @MonicaLVaughan

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