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Ordinance on offensive odors is approved in SLO

Marijuana plants growing in a backyard in San Luis Obispo.
Marijuana plants growing in a backyard in San Luis Obispo.

A new ordinance approved this week in San Luis Obispo, originally stemming from complaints about medical marijuana cultivation, would regulate any offensive and persistent odors that waft across property lines.

Over the concerns of a few residents that the new rules are overreaching, the San Luis Obispo City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to add a provision regulating offensive odors to the city’s municipal code. Councilmen Dan Carpenter and Dan Rivoire dissented.

The ordinance will come back for a final vote at the council’s next meeting and then take effect 30 days later.

The council majority in favor of the ordinance — Mayor Jan Marx and council members John Ashbaugh and Carlyn Christianson — said the new rule would give staff another tool to use when responding to complaints about an issue that’s adversely impacting someone’s quality of life.

“This kind of ordinance would give staff an opportunity where they didn’t have it before,” Christianson said.

The new rules would apply to any smells — not just medical marijuana cultivation — and would include provisions specifying when enforcement actions, such as issuing a notice of violation or an administrative citation, could be taken.

The city’s administrative citation fines are $100 for each violation. The fines increase to $200 and $500 for the second and third violations, respectively, of the same code violation within 12 months of the original violation.

The proposed ordinance assumes that any odor is “offensive to individuals of normal sensitivity” if the city receives three or more complaints within a month from separate households or businesses about a single source of odor.

However, three complaints are not required for the city to start enforcement action, but in that case, city staff would have to establish that the odor is “offensive to individuals of normal sensitivity.”

The offensive odor rules were developed after the council considered and rejected an ordinance last May that would have severely restricted marijuana cultivation and distribution in the city.

That ordinance stemmed from a 2013 complaint by residents living next door to a house in downtown San Luis Obispo where residents were growing a dozen 6-foot-tall marijuana plants in their backyard.

Since then, the city has received several complaints about two locations in the Foothill and Laguna Lake areas where medical marijuana is being cultivated outside. Each complaint cited odor as a main problem, as well as safety and traffic impacts, according to special projects manager Greg Hermann.

A few people spoke against the ordinance at the council’s meeting Tuesday, calling it vague, offensive and ridiculous.

“I find this ordinance to be offensive,” resident Steve Delmartini said. “It started with medical marijuana and has morphed into this. I barbecue 200 to 250 nights of the year — if someone complains, do I have to stop barbecuing?”

Hermann said each situation would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether an issue reaches the level of being a nuisance.

“This is about something that’s adversely impacting people, not about an intermittent odor that people experience as part of living in a residential community,” Hermann said. “It’s not uncommon for a city to have a provision for odors as part of its … municipal code.”

Still, Carpenter and Rivoire said they couldn’t support the ordinance, both stating that the process to determine whether an odor is offensive “to a person of normal sensitivity” could be too difficult and subjective.

“I think there is room for our community to address odor instances of this magnitude … without staff to have to get involved in it,” Rivoire said. “I expect we will hear about barbecues and will have to have a response to community complaints to things we really don’t want to deal with as a council.”

Ashbaugh said there are situations, however, where neighbors are impacted by issues that they can’t resolve on their own, and that’s when they get the city involved.

Marx agreed: “It will actually help the community get along better than we have seen in the recent past.”

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