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Lake County farmers, realtors ask for cannabis permitting changes

LAKE COUNTY — As the County of Lake plans to revisit its cannabis cultivation regulations this year, local farmers and real estate agents are asking for specific amendments to facilitate easier permitting.

A representative from the county wrote last week in an email to this newspaper that a review and analysis of existing cannabis cultivation policy was in progress. Following this review, the county wrote, recommendations will be made to the board of supervisors. The county did not identify any specific changes that may be made to the current regulations.

As the county reviews its policy, locals are pursuing a set of amendment that would remove some barriers from the permitting process. These amendments have been proposed in letters to county officials by a realtors association, the owners of Lake County’s only commercial hops farm, and others.

In a January letter to District 2 Supervisor Bruno Sabatier, owners Claudia and Marty Kuchinski of the Hops-Meister hops farm near Clearlake proposed four changes to the current cannabis permitting code.

First among these changes is to allow permit clustering—a provision that would let multiple permits for adjacent land parcels under the same ownership be utilized in a single, concentrated location.

The second proposed change would rewrite current code to allow cannabis cultivation across a property line where both parcels are under the same ownership. In the Kuchinskis’ case, the current property line setback requirement would leave just a sliver of legally arable land on either side of the boundary between two of their parcels. The farmers have been able to grow hops across this line for years, as regulations for that crop do not have the setback clause.

The third change would limit the reach of a clause in the current regulations that blocks cannabis cultivation on any property that lies within 1,000 feet of a “community growth boundary”—in the Kuchinskis’ case, the city limits of Clearlake. The proposed amendment would require a 1,000 foot distance not from the property on which the cannabis cultivation is to take place, but from the actual location of the growing area.

The fourth change—a sticking point for the Kuchinskis—would move out the date by which anyone applying for a cannabis cultivation permit is required to have enrolled for a California State Water Board permit. Currently, the date is April 19, 2018—the day the current regulations went into effect. This requirement bars any would-be cannabis growers in Lake County who did not enroll prior to that date. The proposed amendment would move the date out to sometime in the future, allowing another wave of applicants, including the Kuchinskis.

Claudia Kuchinski said the amendments are minor changes that “just make good sense.”

A letter to the board of supervisors from the Lake County Association of Realtors proposes almost identical amendments, also calling them “‘common sense’ suggestions.”

Local real estate broker Bobby Dutcher, a member of the LCAR, told this newspaper last week that he has multiple 100-acre-plus properties in the process of being purchased by large cannabis businesses. Dutcher said that if the water board enrollment requirement is not changed, those properties will be released into the market again.

“I’ve got probably $10 million in escrow right now,” Dutcher said. “If the rules don’t get changed, they’re just going to find another county to operate in.”

Dutcher said that Lake County is a desirable place for big cannabis companies to move, but with the water board requirement and other impediments to an efficient permitting process, their business may go elsewhere.

“They’re not in the water board,” Dutcher added. “And they’re not going to wait around forever. It’s already getting late, and it takes quite a while to get a state license.”

“Either you’re going to participate in this industry,” Dutcher said, referring to the county, “or you’re just going to get left behind.”

Local land surveyor Cliff Ruzicka said in late December 2018 that Lake County has many large undeveloped properties that are well suited to cannabis cultivation. Ruzicka’s surveying company has provided services in the past year to major cannabis producers Loudpack and CannaCraft—both of which are looking to invest more in Lake County cultivation projects.

Ruzicka said of the cannabis industry that “generally speaking, the county may be coming around to thinking it’s a good source of revenue … the county has tried to do a good job, but their permitting process is very difficult and very expensive.”

Dennis Hunter, CEO of the Santa Rosa-based CannaCraft company, said in December 2018 that his company is looking at developing four acres of cannabis in Lake County. He said the area is unique in that it is less developed than nearby counties like Humboldt. “You still have a lot of bare land to cultivate without being right up against your neighbors and causing a nuisance,” he said.

Hunter noted, however, that lengthy state and county permitting regulations make it “very expensive to even go through the process.” He said he believes that the county government is “trying to do the right thing,” but that “it really is time to move and get people operating there.”

District 2 Supervisor Sabatier said on Sunday that he is hopeful about cannabis becoming an economic benefit to Lake County. He noted that Lake County could become a cannabis destination “just like our wine can be a destination. Both can co-exist and stimulate our economy in positive ways.”

Sabatier said he is doing all he can to learn the specifics of the county’s cannabis permitting process, so that he can make it more efficient.

In an interview in January, District 2 Supervisor E.J. Crandell expressed similar thoughts. He noted that the amendments being proposed by the Hops-Meister farm seem like “wrinkles” to be “smoothed out.”

“Some of these hindrances were overlooked,” he said, “and I think some of it can be fixed.”

Crandell added that the legalization of cannabis “brought folks forward—they got them out of the woodwork to be a part of this.” He said that he wants to work with would-be cannabis farmers to improve the permitting process. “Keep pushing through,” he said, “we’ll work it out together, just come to the table with us. I think it’s something we can get done.”

Full story is available here.

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