As Stanislaus County government continues to work on local regulation of marijuana, the county is hearing comments that it needs to take more time and consider issuing fewer permits.
The statewide initiative to legalize pot in California passed by a comfortable margin a year ago. But that same initiative allows local jurisdictions to control the industry and even ban commercial marijuana within their boundaries.
In Stanislaus County, a slight majority of voters (50.2 percent) supported Proposition 64, and today strong opinions are expressed by people on both sides of the legalization issue.
Already, some residents are opposing a dispensary proposed on Pirrone Road in Salida. And it’s not hard to imagine additional land use disputes erupting in unincorporated areas of the county, where proposals from marijuana growers might clash with affluent homeowners or residents may object to a dispensary in a high-crime area.
Earlier this month, the county Planning Commission gave tepid approval to the county’s proposed zoning regulations for cannabis activities in unincorporated areas.
Commissioner Katherine Borges said the county’s strategy to allow 61 permits for cannabis businesses, including seven for retail stores, seemed generous compared with other counties.
Borges noted that Fresno County is going with a total ban on commercial cannabis. In Marin County, where 70 percent of voters supported Prop. 64, leaders decided to permit only medical pot delivery services. Marin’s previous plan to permit four dispensaries in unincorporated areas was scrapped after large numbers of nearby residents opposed the locations.
Stanislaus County planners made strong recommendations not to allow dispensaries and other marijuana businesses in commercial strips, but wanted them put out-of-sight in industrial zones.
Commissioner Scott Hicks said parents and children who are out shopping should not be exposed to the environment of marijuana retail outlets, which could be targets of armed robbery. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Hicks said.
The cities of Turlock, Hughson, Waterford and Newman have decided to ban commercial cannabis, while Modesto, Ceres, Riverbank, Oakdale and Patterson plan to regulate and tax the businesses.
In deference to the four “dry” cities, the Stanislaus County ordinance will not permit cannabis activities in their “spheres of influence” or the areas designated for future growth. In fact, the county ordinance won’t allow those businesses within a half mile of the city “spheres” unless the city gives written approval.
“Their staff has done a great job in addressing our concerns,” Turlock Planning Manager Debra Whitmore said. Whitmore said city leaders agree with federal law that considers marijuana an illegal and harmful substance.
The county has requests for 34 cannabis permits in Modesto’s adopted sphere of influence, three in Turlock’s half-mile buffer area, five in the Ceres sphere of influence and one in Oakdale’s sphere. County officials have promised to cooperate with those cities if they have concerns.
Stanislaus County’s ordinance will require land use approval for every cannabis business, whether it’s a retail store, manufacturing facility, indoor grow or testing lab. That way, the county can collect lucrative fees under development agreements with the businesses.
A land use application in an urban area will result in notices sent to residents within 600 feet of the site, which could lead to disputes before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.
Tim Douglas, an east county homeowner, said the county hasn’t done enough homework on the potential adverse effects of the marijuana industry on residents and should have spent the past year thrashing out the land-use issues in public workshops.
He said an early version of the ordinance did not include setbacks to keep greenhouse odors away from neighboring homes. The county will allow only indoor cultivation.
“I have done some research on greenhouse manufacturers and even they say containing smell within a greenhouse is very problematic,” Douglas wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to the Planning Commission.
Douglas noted that marijuana-savvy Humboldt County has a 300-foot setback, and the buffer is 350 feet in Kern County. But Stanislaus County’s proposed setback to prevent impacts on neighboring homes is 200 feet.
Douglas has urged the county to remove a waiver that could allow an indoor commercial grow within 50 feet of a neighboring home if the grower puts a wall up. Douglas said a wall won’t keep drifting odors from annoying the people next door.
“You really would have trouble selling your home if you have something like that next door to you,” Douglas said.
On Nov. 16, planning commissioners shared Douglas’ concerns and also recommended at least a 600-foot distance between a greenhouse and residential area. State law prohibits cannabis activities within 600 feet of a school, day care center or youth center.
Some tensions were stirred with the recent release of a county map showing where businesses have expressed an interest in locating cannabis facilities. The county received initial permit requests from 117 registrants in October, and an updated summary shows 37 requests for retail permits, 170 for cultivation, 24 for distribution, 32 for manufacturing and two for testing labs.
Debbie Nutt of Salida said a Pirrone Road dispensary would be near a gun shop, gymnastics center for youth and a motorcycle club hangout where 30 to 40 people clashed in July.
Other Salida residents have opposed the possible dispensary in emails sent to the county. “We have an issue at (a nearby) park where people are already smoking there,” Nutt said.
Attorney Zack Drivon, who helped clients get approval for indoor cultivation in Stockton, was the only voice for legalized pot at the Planning Commission hearing Nov. 16. He said the ordinance the commission was approving is sound policy.
He added that legalization is about safe access to cannabis products for consumers.
County supervisors will consider the ordinance and the setback requirements on Dec. 5.
Supervisor Terry Withrow said he doubts the county will rethink the limit of 61 permits. “All five of us are against (legalization,)” Withrow said. “We are going to have 61 permits and we will shut everything else down. It will be a dramatic reduction in what we have now.”
The Board of Supervisors will consider the Planning Commission’s advice and the setback issues, and could make additional changes to the zoning regs, Withrow said.
With commercial sales of marijuana set to begin statewide Jan. 1, the county is on schedule to start approving local permits in the first half of 2018. Merchants need a local permit to get a state license for selling their products.
With the proposed ordinance, the county is gearing up for a highly regulated marijuana trade.
The county agricultural commissioner will oversee a track-and-trace program, using software able to “label and identify each cannabis plant from seed to sale within Stanislaus County,” a staff report says.
An estimated 19 full-time staff positions will be needed to enforce cannabis regulations, with the positions spread across the sheriff’s office, ag commissioner’s office, district attorney, environmental resources, planning and public health.
The county’s ordinance amendment is laden with rules for cannabis businesses, some of them a mirror image of state laws.
Customers won’t simply pop into retail stores. The licensed shops will be locked and monitored by uniformed security and will have an electronic system to buzz-in the 21-years-and-older customers. Hours will be 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The ordinance won’t allow drive-through pickup, sign spinners and other street-corner advertising. Signs posted at weed shops will prohibit loitering and smoking or consuming products in the parking lot and immediate area.
Retail shops will display cannabis products complying with the state’s packaging and labeling requirements and will ensure the products for sale have been cultivated, manufactured, distributed and tested by state-licensed facilities, the ordinance says.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321