Marijuana growers in the California Valley fight back against SLO County
A judge has maintained a San Luis Obispo County finding that a cannabis farm in California Valley is violating code — upholding the county’s new cannabis abatement process — but he blocked the county from ripping out plants at the farm for at least the next 30 days.
While the legal dispute is over a single cultivation site, it’s a test case for a group of cannabis growers looking to challenge county code enforcement abatement orders in an effort to save their harvests.
The case is also being watched closely by longtime residents of the valley on the Carrizo Plain who’ve seen hundreds of cannabis farms sprout up in the past few years. They’re concerned about heavy use of the roads and trash that’s been left behind by abandoned grow sites.
One grower, Scott Hurshaujer of Fresno, filed a lawsuit requesting that San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera set aside a June county cannabis hearing officer’s finding against his grow. The officer ordered that Hurshaujer’s farm violates county code because it’s in an area where cultivation was recently banned, issued thousands of dollars in fines and ordered the public nuisance be abated.
“I feel like we basically got screwed over by the county,” Hurshuajer told The Tribune. “We are law abiding citizens. We only did this because they said it was legal.”
LaBarbara on Thursday denied Hurshaujer’s request to set aside the officer’s order. But instead of allowing the county to proceed with ripping out the plants, LaBarbera said he wanted a briefing on medical marijuana and suspended the order to abate the alleged 200-plant farm — if the grower can come up with a $50,000 bond by end of day Tuesday.
The bond is meant as a kind of insurance policy for the county to collect on the more than $20,000 in fines issued by a cannabis hearings officer against the grower. If he can’t come up with the money, code enforcement can abate the plants as soon as Wednesday.
Attorney Alan Karow is arguing the issue for a group of 60 or 70 growers, called the California Valley Cultural Growers Association — most of whom are refugees or immigrants — who have joined together in attempt to protect their investments and harvest their crops in an area where the Board of Supervisors banned cultivation.
“We’re just people trying to make it in this world,” Hurshaujer said. “We invested all of our money that we worked hard from farming long beans and cherry tomatoes.”
More than a dozen have lost code enforcement cases in front of the county’s new administrative cannabis hearings officer; the county has already ripped out some of those family’s plants, at least some of which were medical grows.
By challenging the county in court, Hurshaujer has effectively postponed abatement until the end of September, near harvest time.
LaBarbera initially said Thursday morning that Hurshaujer was not allowed to harvest his crop in that 30 day period, but Deputy County Counsel Brian Stack said the county is not opposed to Hurshaujer harvesting.
The county “doesn’t speak to the specific methods of abatement, we just want the use to stop,” Stack said.
He said the plants can be moved elsewhere, they just can’t stay there. Stack argued against the judge’s decision to postpone abatement, saying he was concerned that would set a precedent and “any further stay would undermine how this administrative process works.”
Faced with a proliferation of farms in a small town with limited groundwater and endangered species, supervisors in 2016 passed an urgency ordinance that required people to register their cannabis cultivation sites with the county and meet certain code requirements, by installing expensive fencing, for example.
Then, they passed a permanent cannabis ordinance that went into effect in December 2017 and banned cultivation in certain zones, including residential suburban like the valley community.
“It’s been confusing when you don’t know the process,” Hurshaujer said. “We only came here after they said, ‘you’re good, just build your fence.’”
He said county officials told them that they would be allowed to cultivate and harvest, even after the permanent ordinance went into effect.
Whether other members of the California Valley Cultural Growers Association will now follow by filing suit against the county is yet to be decided, Karow said.
In the meantime, Karow said, “I hope the county will look at this, that they’re depriving people of medicine.”