Five-hour public hearing ends with Stanislaus County decision on cannabis nurseries

A pole barn on the 5700 block of California avenue owned by the Etchebarne family west of Modesto is pictured on Thursday March 14, 2019. Legacy Nursery proposes the pole barn to be used for growing starter cannabis plants and supplying them to licensed cultivators.
A pole barn on the 5700 block of California avenue owned by the Etchebarne family west of Modesto is pictured on Thursday March 14, 2019. Legacy Nursery proposes the pole barn to be used for growing starter cannabis plants and supplying them to licensed cultivators.

In a five-hour public hearing Tuesday night, Stanislaus County supervisors heard a near-endless chorus of neighborhood opposition to permit applications for cannabis nurseries southwest of Modesto.

Shortly after midnight, supervisors decided there wasn’t majority support to approve the nurseries proposed by Legacy Nursery LLC at two sites on California Avenue, south of Maze Boulevard. More than 90 people spoke during the hearing, which packed the board chambers at Tenth Street Place in Modesto.

Supervisors delayed action on the permit requests to see if Legacy’s owners, Jeannine Chiavetta and Marc Etchebarne, can be allowed to find another location for the cannabis business. The county’s legal cannabis program has looked for good operators, with clean records, and the Legacy partners are considered model applicants.

The county will review its cannabis ordinance and “see if we can let them find another location,” Supervisor Vito Chiesa said Wednesday. “Our CEO is looking into what our discretion is.”

The proposed Legacy nurseries could come back at some point for a board vote, but Chiesa and Supervisor Jim DeMartini are on record opposing the location and three votes on the five-member board are needed for approval. Board Chairman Terry Withrow recused himself Tuesday, because Etchebarne’s father is a client of his accounting firm, leaving four board members to consider the permits.

Legacy proposed to operate nurseries raising clone or starter plants in the 5700 block of California Avenue and in 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space at the southeast corner of California and Hart Road. The owners promised surveillance cameras at the fenced nursery facilities, armed security and a security patrol at night.

Neighbors opposing the permits said the area already has problems with theft, break-ins and other criminal activity and were afraid the cannabis nurseries would attract more trouble.

Dan Inderbitzen, a retired Modesto police captain, advised against taking a naive attitude about the potential for crime. He expressed concern the owners didn’t think a roving patrol was necessary in daytime hours.

Seth Ehrler, superintendent of Shiloh Elementary School and district, said a cannabis business in the school’s “back yard” will send a mixed message to students who are told by prevention programs to stay away from drugs.

Other opponents said the commercial cannabis business is not compatible with the rural neighborhood and would hurt property values. In addition, a few neighbors said there wasn’t a clear plan for disposal of waste materials from the proposed nursery operations.

Some residents suggested the county put indoor growing operations in industrial buildings near cities, where law enforcement response times are faster. Later in the meeting, which ended at 1:08 a.m., the board approved issuing a permit to Prem Gen Corp. for an indoor cultivation facility on El Roya Avenue in an industrial area in southeast Modesto. No one opposed that permit.

The Sisters of the Valley, decked in white veils, were among cannabis industry supporters who spoke in favor of approving the Legacy nurseries on California Avenue. Members of the Merced group said they have purchased clone plants through the black market due to the lack of permitted nurseries.

A woman identifying herself as Sister Alice assured the board the threat of crime is exaggerated. “We don’t have people coming out with guns and dogs to rob us,” she said. The monastic-style business gives away 5 percent of its salves and other cannabis-based medicinal products to people who need it, Alice said.

Stanislaus Sheriff Jeff Dirkse said fees from permitted cannabis businesses will pay for additional staff for shutting down illegal grows. Dirkse said it’s not possible to eliminate the 1,500 illegal marijuana grows in the county at once, but the number could be reduced to 1,200 and then 1,000 with a concerted effort.

A cannabis supporter criticized Dirkse’s use of the word marijuana in his presentation, saying it was a derogatory term widely used by law enforcement before the 2016 statewide measure that legalized cannabis.

Last week, a group of residents that opposed the Legacy nurseries turned in a petition with 1,000 signatures asking the county to limit commercial cannabis to industrial zones and more remote agricultural areas where few people live. This year, county governing bodies are busy reviewing about 45 permit requests from 33 applicants who cleared an initial review by county staff members and a consultant that scored their applications.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini agreed Wednesday that cannabis permits are not a good fit for ag land. “I have received a lot of letters suggesting we put them in industrial areas,” DeMartini said. “That should tell you they don’t belong in agricultural areas. … Some of them might work. These permits will still come case-by-case to the board.”