UPDATE 7/27/21 — The article has been updated to include some clarification regarding the signatures that have been submitted and the verification process.
MENDOCINO Co, 7/23/21 — A group seeking to overturn the county’s new cannabis cultivation land use ordinance has formally submitted a proposed referendum with over 6,200* signatures to the Mendocino County Elections Office, Registrar of Voters Katrina Bartolomie said at 5 p.m. Thursday evening. The proposed referendum, called “Save Our Water Wildlife and Way of Life,” (SOWWW) will need 3,397 verified signatures in order to appear on a ballot.
Petitions for two different referendums seeking to change the county’s new cannabis cultivation program have been circulating over the last month: one to repeal the proposed ordinance, and the other to change the specific provision which could allow permitted cultivation on up to 10% of certain parcels. Thursday was the deadline for submitting the proposals to be considered before the ordinance goes into effect. The second petition striking the 10% provision, known as the “Small is Beautiful” referendum, did not receive enough signatures in time, Bartolomie confirmed. The SOWWW petition calls for the supervisors to either rescind the ordinance, or put it before the voters.
The new cannabis cultivation ordinance, called “Chapter 22.18,” was passed by county supervisors voting 4 – 1 in favor (with District Three Supervisor John Haschak dissenting) during the regular June 22 meeting, and it is scheduled to go into effect after 30 days, starting at midnight July 23.
Bartolomie explained the process: the county’s election office will now have until 30 working days, until September 1, to verify the signatures, and will stop counting once 3,397 are verified. At that point, the Board of Supervisors will have the option to adopt the proposed referendum, decide to hold a special election, or the referendum could be on the ballot at the next regularly scheduled election in June, 2022. When asked whether the supervisors would also allocate additional budget funds in the case of a special election, Bartolomie declined to answer, noting that such an election would likely cause budget overruns, but that she had not personally been involved in a similar process previously.
When asked for additional details about the signature county, Bartolomie provided more specifics: “Our raw count is 6239 signatures. A raw count consists of separating the total number of signatures per petition into stacks (20 in one stack, 19 in the next stack and so on), then counting the petitions per stack to come up with a raw count. That count includes everything that was turned in to us, which includes those with PO Boxes and PMB boxes that the voter supplied rather than a residence address or location. I don’t know how many of those are in the total signature count, we will know once we are done.”*
The new cannabis cultivation permit program has been the source of heated debate and hundreds of comments at multiple meetings of the county supervisors and planning commission, with the majority of commenters in opposition to the scale of expanded cultivation that will be allowed in the new program. These new regulations will establish a discretionary use permit process for new applicants, as opposed to the ministerial permit process established by the county for the current applicants and permit holders, which has left many cultivators seeking permits in a legal grey area due to the county’s use of a mitigated negative declaration and other inconsistencies with the state’s licensing program. Members of the SOWWW group have also filed a lawsuit calling for an Environmental Impact Report of the county’s recently approved cannabis facilities ordinance.
The controversy over the new ordinance has largely centered on a provision, known as the 10% clause, which would allow applicants with parcels in certain zones to apply to grow cannabis on up to 10% of said parcel. More recently, the supervisors have given direction to staff to develop language that would phase in such an expansion by limiting permits over several years, with the first phase allowing cultivation on up to two acres of a specific parcel. However, that language is not included in the ordinance, which will go into effect tomorrow. (See our previous coverage here).
Those that spoke in opposition included current and former sheriffs, representatives from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and a number of other local and regional agencies. The arguments have continued on social media where several current and former supervisors, including those sitting on the previous cannabis ad hoc committees, have engaged in personal arguments over the ordinance and referendum efforts with constituents. An anti-referendum group, calling themselves the “Citizens for Sustainable Agriculture,” also announced their formation early this month, and the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, a cannabis advocacy group, issued a statement opposing both referendums.
During public meetings, many residents expressed concerns over possible environmental impacts resulting from expanding cultivation, the current lack of enforcement at existing unpermitted grow sites, and how changes to the permit process could harm smaller cultivators in the county’s existing program, many of whom remain in limbo without final permits
“The Board of Supervisors has received hundreds of letters from citizens over the last four months urging them not to approve this cannabis expansion ordinance. The County needs to get its cannabis program in order and it should have conducted an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of this cannabis program expansion. However, the Board has ignored the public’s concerns,” states Sheila Jenkins, a member of the referendum’s steering committee, in an earlier press release from the SOWWW group.
The referendum process may result in delays in the implementation and approval of new cannabis permits under the new ordinance, but exactly what it will mean for the hundreds of earlier applicants still navigating the county’s earlier permit process remains unclear. The county recently opened a long expected digital “portal” to facilitate the review of existing permit applications, and loosened the income requirements for the cannabis equity program, both of which are expected to assist the farmers who are still seeking final permit approval from the county and state.
As of Friday morning, Bartomie explained that elections staff had already begun the process of signature verification, and that it was “exciting to see democracy in action.”
*Editor’s note: This article has been updated as of July 27 to include more specific information about the number of signatures submitted and information about how those signatures are sorted and verified.