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Why proposed Stanislaus County cannabis permits incite fear among rural neighbors

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A group of Stanislaus County residents wants county government to disallow legal cannabis businesses and processing operations in agricultural areas where people live the country lifestyle.

The leaders of the petition drive, who are vocally against two cannabis nurseries proposed southwest of Modesto, say commercial marijuana permits should be limited to industrial zones and non-populated rural areas. The group said the petition bearing more than a 1,000 signatures was signed by people throughout the county. It was submitted to the county last week.

The primary concern is that lucrative greenhouses, processing and distribution businesses will be targets of crime in rural neighborhoods dotted with farmhouses, barns, dairies and ranchettes.

“It is inevitable that more crime will show up,” said Nick Blom, a farmer west of Modesto. “It is a cash crop. Even with illegal grows out by the (Tuolumne River), you have to worry when they are carrying weapons. It is not safe.”

There’s no indication the petition will stall a parade of cannabis permit applications scheduled before county governing bodies in the next few months, but it reflects the tensions created by the first projects that have moved through the pipeline since January.

While California voters approved Proposition 64 in November 2016 to legalize marijuana, the measure included numerous regulations to impose local controls on the industry and ensure safe access to marijuana. Stanislaus County leaders decided to allow no more than 61 commercial cannabis permits, including seven retail shops in unincorporated areas.

A team of county staff members, assisted by a consultant, have spent months vetting, reviewing and scoring applications for 84 permits. And about half of those advanced to the land-use process.

At a public hearing Tuesday, county supervisors will consider approving two sites for Legacy Nursery LLC on California Avenue, south of Maze Boulevard, and will consider another permit for indoor cultivation on El Roya Avenue, near the Beard Industrial area in southeast Modesto.

Legacy’s permit applications received the highest scores in the county staff review that considered the background of applicants, locations, business plans, security and neighborhood compatibility. Nonetheless, the proposed nurseries for growing 4-inch starter plants in the 5700 block of California and a second site at California and Hart Road, ran into a buzz-saw of opposition at a county Planning Commission hearing Feb. 7.

Nearby residents said the nurseries are not compatible with a rural neighborhood that includes Shiloh School and a youth baseball field on Paradise Road.

Neighbors are concerned that criminals will try to rob the nurseries, and even if discouraged by a fence and armed security, will choose to steal from nearby farms or homes. “They will find an easy target,” said George Avila, who lives in the area.

MOD_JBLCannabisProposal1
Opponents of marijuana commercial permits from left to right- George Avila, Becki Scharffer and Nick Blom want to ban the operations in agricultural areas in Stanislaus County. They are pictured at The Modesto Bee on Monday March 11, 2019. Joan Barnett Lee jlee@modbee.com

Residents who irrigate their orchards at night and early morning dairy employees will no longer feel safe, the group said. “We fear for our safety,” said Becki Scharffer, who has a home and equipment shop between Legacy’s two sites on California Avenue.

Legacy has argued that the closest nursery is more than 1 1/2-mile driving distance from Shiloh School — or a half mile as the crow flies, opponents say. The proponents say the small nursery plants don’t emit the strong odors of mature plants. They promise 24-hour surveillance cameras, armed security and a security patrol at night.

In a county staff report, a Sheriff’s Department sergeant stated that authorities mostly see marijuana-related crimes at places lacking security measures.

“We have been sure to cross the t’s and dot the i’s to be that example for the industry,” Legacy co-owner Jeannine Chiavetta said.

Chiavetta, a former water polo athlete at Modesto High and UC Davis, said she became a medical marijuana patient to treat joint pain stemming from her athletic career. The business will sell the young plants wholesale to permitted cultivators, distributors and retail shops.

If the permits are approved Tuesday, Legacy would become one of the few licensed cannabis nurseries in California. “There is a huge need in the industry for more nurseries,” Chiavetta said. “Because the whole permitting process has been such a long road, the supply is being choked.”

Chiavetta’s partner in the venture is Marc Etchebarne, a county planning commissioner whose father is a client of county Supervisor Terry Withrow’s accounting firm in Modesto. Those connections have triggered complaints of conflict of interest from Legacy’s opponents. Withrow is expected to recuse himself from Tuesday’s hearing and Etchebarne has not participated in cannabis proposals, including his own, before the Planning Commission.

Other cannabis projects have stirred debate at land use hearings in recent months. And the Planning Commission has wrestled with decisions on permits inciting neighborhood opposition.

On March 9, the planners frowned on a proposal by 37 North Ventures LLC to grow plants in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse on Goodwin Road east of Empire. Residents of Goodwin Road, or the Goodwin Road “family” as one called it, spoke against the proposal, saying the business would attract shifty characters and robbery attempts, and their property values would suffer.

Some homeowners on the three-quarter-mile road, between Yosemite Boulevard and Dry Creek, said religious scruples had kept German Baptist farmers, who rent land on Goodwin, from attending the hearing but they asked residents to share their concerns.

Commission Chairman Scott Hicks said the North Ventures site was in the most densely populated area when compared with other proposals considered by the panel this year. The commission unanimously voted to recommend denial of the permit.

At the same meeting, the commission voted 4-2 to approve a use permit for Central Valley Growers LLC to manage 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space and processing activities on West Fulkerth Road, between Crows Landing and Carpenter roads, west of Turlock.

Chris Cox, representing Central Valley, said the business will make improvements to an abandoned dairy site, provide odor control and security, and won’t handle an extensive amount of cash. Some nearby residents said the business is not compatible with homes, a school and bus stops for school kids in Chatom Union School District.

But the majority of planners felt Central Valley had met the permit requirements. When it considered the Legacy nurseries last month, the planners recommended approval for the site at California and Hart Road and turned down the other, which didn’t meet an agricultural buffer on the east side.

The Board of Supervisors makes the final decisions on issuing commercial cannabis permits.

The group supporting the petition said the county can avoid these flareups, including one looming over a cannabis proposal in politically sensitive Wood Colony, by banning the permits in agricultural areas with homes. They cite the county’s commercial cannabis ordinance that says approved land uses will not be “detrimental to the health, safety and general welfare of persons residing or working in the neighborhood.”

Placing production facilities “in our neighborhoods does not fulfill this requirement,” the petition says.

County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said Friday land use issues are known for stirring controversy and “then you add cannabis on top and everyone is hypersensitive.”

When asked about the group’s petition, Chiesa said he doesn’t see the county reversing course on its review process and will consider the permits case-by-case. County supervisors will consider input from neighbors before deciding on projects even if they were highly rated by staff, he said.

Some permits endorsed by the Planning Commission could be turned down by supervisors, and supervisors could approve permits not recommended by planners, Chiesa said.

He said he doesn’t see any perfect locations for the cannabis industry in the 1,500-square-mile county. An ordinance prohibits a cannabis business within 600 feet of a school and includes a 200-foot residential setback.

“We built the best model we knew how,” Chiesa said. “We have maybe 1,000 illegal grows and (with revenue from legal cannabis) we can start to lessen the overall impact.”

Chiavetta said she’s made every effort to ease concerns of neighbors. Etchebarne’s father is respected in agribusiness as a large animal nutritionist and family members say they’ve lost some good relationships in the furor, when they’re trying to be a model for a new legal industry.

The county could receive about $140,000 in fees from Legacy over five years. The county plans to use cannabis revenue to pay for enforcing the regulations and doing away with illegal grows where danger lurks. Some of the revenue will pay for community programs primarily focused on youth.

County residents supporting the petition believe the cannabis revenue will fall short of an original projection of $4 million to $7 million annually, and won’t do much to benefit the community. In an interview with the Modesto Bee, the group said there are plenty of sparsely populated areas on the east and west sides of the county for cannabis operations that won’t disturb homes and schools.

The county projection of at least $4 million in annual fees was based on 61 permits. After reviewing applications, the county is more likely to issue about 45 permits, meaning the revenue could be 60 percent of the original projection, Chiesa said.

Still, there should be revenue for drug interdiction, code enforcement and prosecution of black-market cultivators, he said.

Dennis Nasrawi, who helped circulate the petition, noted that tax revenue from the state’s year-old cannabis industry is well short of expectations thus far.

He said if the county was intent on issuing permits in populated areas, it should have been more transparent and sought public input in developing the permit requirements.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors meets at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, at 1010 10th St. Modesto.

Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.


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