By KAREN VELIE
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles about how high-end investors, small marijuana growers and fortune hunters are battling for a place in California’s new gold/green rush.
As the SLO County Board of Supervisors takes up the Planning Commission’s recommendations to approve a county’s marijuana ordinance, questions are being raised about claims of backroom deals and influence peddling for marijuana operations that will be worth millions of dollars.
A handful of members of SLO NORML, a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill told members he would support their efforts on behalf of small grower if they supported him financially.
In Sept. 2016, Hill spoke about the future of the local marijuana industry at a SLO NORML meeting. Near the end of his speech, a member asked Hill what they needed to do to get Hill to support the small growers.
“Hill said, ‘It all depends how much money you put into envelopes,’ ” said the attendee who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “I don’t know how much was put into the envelopes.”
Following the meeting, on Sept. 26, SLO NORML attendee Reggie Collins sent out an email asking members of SLO Normal to each give Hill $1,000 for his support.
“I am calling a special meeting to donate $ and help to his campaign,” Collins wrote. “My farm donated $1000 recently. He is prepared to speak and attend our meeting. This is a mandatory donation for attendees.”
The next day, Collins sent out another email explaining his plan.
“My plan is to get the people who will pay to play,” Collins wrote.
While Collins confirmed with Cal Coast Times that he had donated to Hill’s campaign, Hill did not report a donation from Collins on his financial disclosure fillings. Hill did not respond to questions about the email or the alleged donation.
In Sept. 2016, the SLO County Board of Supervisors passed an urgency ordinance that banned new marijuana grows, but allowed permits for existing growers who registered with the county. At that time, several county supervisors voiced plans not to approve permits to those who violate the urgency ordinance and current state laws.
But, a group of local growers contend that county staff is ignoring regulations and misdemeanor violations for some marijuana businesses, while actively enforcing regulations for other pot entrepreneurs.
For example, the urgency ordinance bans new marijuana grows, but allows growers who can document they were cultivating as of Aug. 23, 2016, to continue growing cannabis. However, their grows cannot expand in size.
A number of people have complained that county planning department staff is turning a blind eye to some grows that appear to violate county codes and ordinances. Meanwhile, neighbors are turning against neighbors.
In April, neighbors of a grow on Huasna Townsite Road owned by Anna Gabriel in rural Arroyo Grande complained to the planning department that Gabriel was grading several acres of land without a grading permit. The neighbors said that Gabriel’s claims that she had 3,000 plants in the ground in 2016 were untrue.
Neighbors also said they were concerned that a man convicted in 2014 of operating a hash oil manufacturing operation in Arroyo Grande was managing Gabriel’s grow.
Next-door neighbor Jeff Horton said his complaints were ignored until he contacted Cal Coast Times and SLO County Supervisor Lynn Compton.
Shortly after a reporter contacted the planning department about the grading issue, code enforcement red tagged the property for grading without a permit and told Horton it was unlikely the grow would be approved, Horton said.
As proof that she had been growing 3,000 plants on Aug. 2016, Gabriel provided a receipt stating she had purchased 2,075 cloned young pot plants in 2016 for $2,075, a dollar a piece.
Clones generally run $10 to $15 each. That would put the cost of 2,000 plants at between $20,000 to $30,000. In addition, a marijuana user who grew plants on the Gabriel’s land in 2016 said that at that time the grow was approximately 300 plants.
Even so, a few weeks after the property was red tagged, the county approved the marijuana grow.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a permit, there is no enforcement and no penalties,” Horton said.
Last week, approximately 100 of Gabriel’s neighbors signed a petition asking the county to reject the grow because of issues with water scarcity, smell, traffic and noise and light pollution.
“It’s not about the product; we are opposed to the high volume of traffic in a tiny community served by a narrow, twisting road,” the letter says. “We are appalled at the thousands of gallons of water used per day. We are overwhelmed with a stench that carries well beyond what a 300 foot setback would prevent. We are concerned that our properties are seriously de-valued or not even saleable. We would prefer a return to a time of only occasional noise, instead of the current dozen employees yelling over a radio and the sound of equipment and pumps all day.”
In the battle for influence, several large growers or their consultants have wooed county officials and planning department staff.
Under the urgency ordinance, the county planning department approved Cookie Fam for a 49,000 cannabis plant indoor grow at the former Clearwater Nursery in Nipomo. Art Trinidade, the chief code enforcement investigator for the SLO County Planning Department, visited the site multiple times but failed to note violations of the urgency ordinance, Cookie Fam representatives said.
Several concerned workers and visitors to the site informed Cal Coast Times that CFAM Management had exceeded its permit by tenfold and was growing approximately 500,000 marijuana plants. After several complaints to county officials, the site was officially inspected and found to have approximately 225,000 plants at the time of the inspection.
Amber Johnson, a consultant for CFAM Management, said the growers were unaware that young plants, those that have not flowered, counted. Since then, the grower is complying with county regulations, Johnson said.
Several Huasna Townsite Road residents said they took their concerns to the sheriff’s department, but were told that even though some of the violations were misdemeanors, the sheriff would leave enforcement to the county planning department.
“County ordinances like these are typically civil in nature and are enforced by County Code Enforcement,” said Tony Cipolla, SLO County Sheriff’s Department Spokesperson.
On Tuesday, the SLO County Board of Supervisors will discuss whether to approve the Planning Commission’s recommendations, which include vague rules and unlimited greenhouse grows and a limit of 50 outdoor grows, or make changes to the proposed permanent marijuana ordinance.