MENDOCINO Co, 10/10/22 — At their regular meeting on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors heard 12 “time-sensitive and urgent” recommendations from the Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee — comprised of supervisors Glenn McGourty and John Haschak — designed to improve the county processes for cannabis permits.
In a meeting that adjourned after 7 p.m., the majority of the committee’s recommendations were ultimately referred on to the General Government Committee or no new direction was issued; Chair Ted Williams found that many were not “shovel-ready,” while Haschak told The Mendocino Voice the board “missed an opportunity to move along” a process in stagnation.
Long, frustrating meeting for cultivators
That afternoon, cannabis cultivators and their supporters from the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) held signs encouraging the supervisors to approve the ad hoc recommendations, and spoke about changes they hoped to see made to the local equity grant program manual — such as clearer safety and disease exemptions for vegetation modification, and mortgage aid for farmers, many of whom would lose their business if they lost their home.
Time running out was the theme of the day. Cultivators must transition from state provisional to state annual licenses by June 30, 2023, a deadline now eight months away. According to Haschak, “too much time has been spent on micro-managing” with regards to grant qualifications on the more than $3 million in state funding meant to aid “those hardest hit by the War on Drugs by lowering barriers to cannabis permitting and licensing.” Such equity grants have been dispersed to local jurisdictions around the state to address similar inequities on a local scale.
Supervisor Maureen Mulheren pointed out that taking care with the process is not inherently negative, saying it’s the board and department’s responsibility “to make sure we’re not setting the citizens of Mendocino County up for obligation [to repay] grants that were awarded erroneously.”
But delays in awarding grants at all have been significant — and given the high costs associated with license applications and environmental review, many cultivators say this funding could be the difference between continuing to grow cannabis in Mendocino County or being forced to leave the industry. According to a news release from MCA, a survey conducted by MCA and the Department of Agriculture found it generated $130 million in economic activity in 2020.
“[In 2020], we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 licenses in the county that were being applied for,” MCA Executive Director Michael Katz told The Voice. “And now we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of between 700 and 800 licenses in the county. We’ve lost a substantial amount and … people who are still staying in it have had to fallow, they’ve had to reduce their canopy. The economic challenges in the industry right now due to the substantial oversupply are one thing, but at the same time [we’re] dealing with these bureaucratic challenges that are making the process of maintaining compliance incredibly challenging.”
The equity grant program
More than an hour of Tuesday’s meeting time was spent on board discussion and public comment around an item introduced by Williams to limit the local equity grant program to “legitimate governmental purposes, including environmental remediation, encouragement of regulatory compliance, mitigation of negative impacts of existing industry and void any program elements found to be impermissible under Federal Law.” Ultimately, the board voted (with Haschak dissenting) to hire outside counsel to determine whether the state grant program might violate federal law — a decision Katz said he found “completely absurd.”
“We wasted more time on it,” Haschak said by phone after the meeting. “And now, with the motion that was approved, we’re going to waste county resources and more county counsel time on this issue that is a non-issue.”
Many of these cultivators have already seen their grant applications sit, waiting to be reviewed for months. Among the ad hoc committee’s suggestions was the idea of hiring an outside consultant to implement and review Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant Program (LJAGP) grant applications. However,Director Kristin Nevedal said a request for proposals (RFP) would take time away from an already small and overworked staff in being able to review applications, and that her staff would need to cross-check any outside firm’s work regardless.
She said the department will soon begin a phased move to a new space in Willits, which will allow them to hire much needed staff. Nevedal explained, “We’ve spent a heck of a lot of time over the past year working toward complete [grant] applications for the applicant pool.” She is uncertain when review will begin on applications.
“We already missed July and August,” she said on Tuesday. “It is October. Our original thought on this timeline included staffing, but because of a lack of space which has now been resolved, we have not been able to fully staff. Part of the challenge with our lack of staffing is we have not had management. We don’t have a senior planner — we just got a chief planner. That will be significantly helpful to moving these grants forward.”
Few completed items among the twelve recommendations
The recommendations (outlined in full in a PDF at the end of the article) came after about five months of stakeholder engagement by the ad hoc committee, which interviewed Nevedal and the Mendocino Cannabis Department, cultivators around the county (about 30 of whom attended Tuesday’s meeting), the County Counsel’s office, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Some items were approved, including item 4, which requested that the General Government Committee meet monthly. This will potentially be implemented in 2023, per work on the calendar between the Clerk of the Board and the CEO’s office. The Planning and Building office will also adopt a policy allowing trimming in residences or accessory structures (item 5) and reconsider a memo limiting the use of portable toilets to satisfy restroom requirements (item 10) after engagement with the ad hoc committee, Planning and Building Director Jessica Krog said in the meeting.
Direction on item 1 was not approved as written, but staff were given qualitative instructions in terms of expediting grants. However, no direction was given on items 2, 6, or 7; and items 3, 8, 9, 11, and 12 were referred to the General Government Committee. Full, detailed discussion of the first seven recommendations can be viewed in the meeting recording from timestamp 7:45 to 10:13.
While Haschak was “disappointed” not to see the list of recommendations implemented given these timing considerations, Williams told The Voice that he went into the meeting understanding most of the ideas presented would need more work.
“Most of the recommendations were not actionable, some due to missing budget information, others due to missing language,” he wrote in an email. “We can’t simply direct staff to approve quicker; the hard work of an ad hoc committee is bringing the specific change (budget allocation, space allocation, staffing, outside contract, RFP initiation, etcetera) for a vote. … Supervisor McGourty was clear with us that the dozen items were just preliminary concepts, but unfortunately the advocates in chambers were out of sync on this detail.”
Many of the items will move on to the General Government Committee, which meets Oct. 17. Any subsequent, more specific recommendations will also need to return to the supervisors for a final review.
“If they hear those issues then, hopefully they can deal with them quickly and bring them back to the board as soon as possible,” Haschak said in a phone call. “But realistically, it’s not going to happen in November — and so it might be December at the earliest, I don’t know. Ideally, [the General Government Committee] would be up to speed on the issues and talk to the stakeholders, as well as the cannabis department, to see what the issues are and really try to move them forward, because the status quo isn’t working.”
“At the edge of a precipice”
Those whose livelihoods are most affected don’t have time to waste, and many that seemed hopeful at the beginning of the day were clearly disheartened by the end of the multiple hours of cannabis discussion.
“To see the conversations happening around the minutiae or the concerns of county liability, versus the concerns of maintaining hundreds of Mendocino County operators’ businesses, thousands of Mendocino County residents’ way of life — we are really at the edge of a precipice here,” Katz said. “I certainly do hope that you reconsider the urgency with which we need to address these issues, because once these folks lose their licenses, they will not be able to come back and the county will not recover.”
The next General Government Committee meeting is scheduled for Oct. 17. A discussion on changes to the 10A.17 cannabis ordinance to allow for administrative appeals to cannabis program decisions was pushed from Tuesday’s meeting until the BOS meeting on Nov. 1.Cannabis-Ad-Hoc-Memo
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.