Environment

Marijuana boom in jeopardy as SLO County considers ban in California Valley

Fenced marijuana grows dot the landscape in California Valley. The county is considering whether to ban cannabis farms in the area.
Fenced marijuana grows dot the landscape in California Valley. The county is considering whether to ban cannabis farms in the area. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Anna Delara and Mario Rivera wake up around 5:30 a.m. six days a week to work up to 10 hours a day tending grapevines under the hot sun in Paso Robles.

In the evenings, one or both of them take a windy, hourlong drive on Highway 58 from their Paso Robles home to California Valley to farm the 2.5-acre parcel they purchased to build a home for their three children.

“The idea wasn’t always to grow cannabis,” Delara said. “We were looking for property to build our house, and a few months later, we heard about the grows going up. We saw it as an opportunity to (help) make a living as we build our house. I thought of the benefits of helping people — the medical benefits. A lot of people need their medication.”

That was in early 2016, when California Valley became the epicenter of the marijuana boom in San Luis Obispo County. Since then, Delara, 26, and Rivera, 32, have spent thousand of dollars to bring their farm up to code to temporary regulations the county put in place last fall.

Now, they and hundreds of people who see a future of growth for the region could lose their investments. County supervisors are considering a ban on cannabis farming in California Valley as part of a package of regulations for commercial cannabis activities that could go into effect as soon as October. Growing operations may be put out of business even sooner because county code enforcement officers have determined that some farms in the valley are allegedly in violation of county code rules.

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Supervisor Debbie Arnold, whose district includes California Valley, said in a board meeting, “I hope that before anyone invested out there that they realize that we’re kind of in the process of trying to sort this out.”

But growers said that’s not the case.

“They bought the land with the intent to grow because it was legal based on laws that existed then,” said Larry Montenegro, a longtime California Valley resident who sells water and rents land to growers.

Growing medical marijuana has been legal in the state of California since 1996, but the county hadn’t developed any local rules until an urgency ordinance was passed in 2016 just before voters approved recreational cannabis. Next year, the state and the county will begin to issue licenses to commercial cannabis operations, including farms.

Recent drafts of the land-use ordinance would ban growing cannabis in areas zoned residential-suburban, like California Valley, or in the entire Carrizo Plain. The Planning Commission will hold two public hearings on the rules Thursday and Aug. 10 before making a recommendation to the county Board of Supervisors. Supervisors could adopt the rules Oct. 3. The county will also begin discussing a fee and tax structure on Tuesday.

Conservationists and some supervisors have expressed support for banning cultivation in the area because of limited groundwater in the basin and because the Carrizo Plain has the highest concentration of endangered and threatened species in the lower 48 states, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Marijuana boom

Last year even before recreational legalization hundreds of medical marijuana farms popped up in the remote rural community about 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo on the Carrizo Plain.

Most of the marijuana grown in the county is cultivated there: About 180 of the 267 grows temporarily approved in the county are in California Valley.

The sudden eruption of activity doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“Out of control,” is how Arnold recently described the situation in a Board of Supervisors discussion about the future of cannabis in the county.

Local residents and county employees complained about associated crime, increased traffic on the dirt roads, disruption to sensitive habitat for endangered species, depleted water, Valley Fever caused from upturned dust and a new population that altered the town.

 

“Last year, (a code enforcement officer) said people will get shot. He was criticizing us, saying we were criminals,” Delara said. “He said it was going to be like Juarez, Mexico (a city once deemed the most dangerous place on Earth because of violent drug cartels).”

Sheriff’s Deputy John McKenney regularly patrols the area and said crime has increased as expected with an increase in population.

There have been a few marijuana-related crimes, and he’s waiting to see what happens during this harvest season. Last year, the department received calls that during the harvest season people claimed they were tied up and robbed of their plants. A couple of months ago, three people from out of the area were arrested after they allegedly broke into a greenhouse and stole a couple thousand dollars of plants.

“For the most part, the farmers themselves tend to be peaceful people. I don’t hear a lot of issues where one farmer is victimizing another farmer,” McKenney said.

People who grow cannabis in California Valley, and other community members in the area say the bad rap local growers get is unfair and exaggerated.

“It’s not that we come in here and want to mess around with the valley,” said Doua Her, 42, who tends to his family’s medical cannabis farm on a dusty 2.5-acre plot. “We try to live here. We take care of the valley good.”

Who are the growers?

A diverse group of people tend to marijuana plants on otherwise undeveloped parcels in the early mornings and late nights to avoid the valley heat that often tops 100 degrees. They rent rooms or houses from long-term residents, stay in the local motel or drive from their homes in nearby communities such as Paso Robles, Shandon or Fresno.

Many of the farmers originally came to America as refugees from Laos. Families like Her’s pool their money together to buy a plot and the necessary equipment. Homes and vacant lots sold in the area for prices ranging from $3,000 to $75,000, according to a Realtor who sold dozens of parcels in 2016.

They need to farm cannabis, Her said, because it’s too expensive to buy from a dispensary, which only sells flowers from the plant. His family uses the entire plant for medicinal purposes: Boiled leaves make a tea. An entire plant can be boiled for a bath. They cook chicken or pork with marijuana leaves to help sleep and to relieve pain.

Some growers are Caucasian, including an Atascadero entrepreneur — who declined to give his name — who manages multiple grow operations all over the state, and Andrew Hafler, whose family has been growing medical marijuana for years. Hafler wants to raise his family in the valley on land where he’s already planted fruit trees.

Few are new to farming.

Delara and Rivera, for example, are both field workers. They were able to buy the land in California Valley with money from savings, a tax refund and a settlement Rivera won from an unfair labor lawsuit. Developing the plot into their “dream house” will be expensive. They consider the medical marijuana grow an investment.

California Valley should be an ideal place to grow because it’s “out in the middle of nowhere,” Delara and others said.

There are few neighbors to disturb, and they see the land as agricultural. Cannabis cultivation could be part of a bright future for the valley, they say.

Shong Yang, 55, agrees. He moved to America from Laos in 1990 and tends to his family’s 99 plants on the east side of the valley.

“I believe if they let the patients like us to grow, we might stay here and make the city grow,” Yang said. “Later, we might have some store or a gas station downtown, and the community hall might be bigger, and the town might get bigger. That’s what I hope.”

That’s a future that looks nice to Larry and Candice Montenegro, who were struggling to pay their bills before the marijuana boom. They own a construction company that took jobs across the region. With his degenerative disc disease, driving long distances for work became impossible for Larry Montenegro.

“There was no way to make money out here. Now people are making a living out here,” Candice Montenegro said. “I hope they let people continue to grow, let it expand and let people be.”

County seeks control

Code enforcement officers began inspecting marijuana grows early this year after the county passed an urgency ordinance last fall to limit cannabis cultivation in the county in response to the explosion of activity in the valley. Some growers left the area. Most worked to meet county code. That’s cost them thousands of dollars each — from installing fencing to renting portable toilets.

But it hasn’t always paid off.

At one point this year, there were 288 registered grow sites in California Valley of 455 in the county. To receive approval, growers are required to bring their properties into compliance with both the urgency ordinance and the county’s land-use regulations and building codes.

As of mid-July, only 267 grow sites are approved countywide, around 180 of which are in California Valley. That means, around 100 farms in California Valley have either shut down or are at risk of being sued by the county at any point, according to county code enforcement supervisor Art Trinidade, even after farmers have spent hundreds on provisional permits and thousands in an attempt to comply with county rules.

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Delara said their family farm was operating under a provisional permit when they were told they were in violation for an issue they didn’t know was a problem. About half their crop was grown under hoop houses — makeshift greenhouses — that the county told them weren’t allowed. Delara and her husband removed the crop cover and lost more than 100 plants.

“It’s expensive,” Delara said of complying with the temporary code. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

Soon, all the growers could lose their operations if county officials decide against them.

“I’m the last one that wants to take someone’s legal business down by creating a regulation to the point that they’re not compliant anymore,” Arnold said. “But we did talk about this back in July. California Valley: Finish the season and then don’t count on it. Nobody’s grandfathered in.”

If the county decides to ban cannabis after the sites have been developed under existing laws, businesses would be shut down.

Larry Montenegro said they hope Arnold will begin to see opportunity, support cannabis cultivation in California Valley and support the growers.

“I hope (the county will) help us build this community and create some jobs, which are really needed,” he said. “I really look forward to Mrs. Debbie Arnold to turn around and help us out and to trust us like we trusted her when we voted her in.”

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