MENDOCINO Co, CA, 2/8/23 — Language in a Mendocino County ordinance meant to protect local forest lands from out-of-towners seeking cannabis riches has instead penalized small local cultivators in the midst of the commercial permitting process who have removed trees on their properties, as the Board of Supervisors discussed for around four hours on Tuesday.
Following weeks of General Government Committee discussion and a report from County Counsel and Mendocino Cannabis Department (MCD) Director Kristen Nevedal, supervisors voted to modify the ordinance’s language to clarify how it defines development; apply CalFire’s standards and requirements around tree removal for safety concerns; and simplify the language of a new affidavit form allowing cultivators to explain why trees were removed from their land.
This decision comes after MCD sent letters to numerous cultivators in spring of 2022, showing satellite imagery of removed trees on their property and requesting that they provide evidence in 15 days to show that they hadn’t violated the ordinance. Cultivators were distraught, and MCD has since said that staff struggles to understand what evidence can be considered acceptable. According to MCD, some 30 cultivators’ applications are currently stalled because of these questions around vegetation modification.
So what’s the vague language in question? Removal of certain tree species “for the purpose of developing a cannabis cultivation site is prohibited,” the ordinance reads. It goes on, “This prohibition shall not include the pruning of any such trees for maintenance, or the removal of such trees if necessary to address safety or disease concerns.”
As county staff explained, administering this ordinance is particularly tough because for many, it’s being retroactively applied to tree removals as far back as 2017. As such, county attorney Jared Schwass presented three possible interpretations to further define the “purpose of developing a cannabis cultivation site.” Following discussion, supervisors directed County Counsel to proceed with the first option, which Nevedal identified as the “most permissive.” Under this option, general development in a tree removal area such as adding ADA-compliant bathrooms or a new pond is allowed. Only expanding a garden and/or growing cannabis on the cleared site would be prohibited.
Teresa Sischo of Impassable Farms couldn’t get LEEP funding at the last minute. Two dead trees that fell in her garden as well as three trees they’d removed outside the garden came back to haunt her when MCD told her she’d been deemed ineligible.
“It should not be this difficult to be legal and obtain a license, especially as a good player and a tax-paying community citizen,” she said in public comment.
Sischo fears that, even within the new ordinance language, the fact that she moved her garden location on her property — despite cutting no trees to do so — might still prohibit her from licensure. 3rd District supervisor John Haschak has been to her farm, and shared her concerns about unfair demands on cultivators.
“If we can’t get a permit for that farm, then there’s something really wrong with the program,” Haschak said.
Supervisors also discussed the second half of the ordinance language: how the county defines “safety or disease concerns.” A cultivator’s reason for removal is difficult to verify retroactively, as is what can reasonably be accepted as a safety concern, per Schwass’ presentation.
During this conversation, 5th District Supervisor Ted Williams repeatedly emphasized a desire to ensure that all 30 cultivators in limbo because of vegetation issues would be able to be permitted. County Counsel Christian Curtis explained that it’s not possible for the board to “individually legislate each permit” — but a desire to act in good faith with regard to cultivators permeated the board’s discussion, especially around fire safety.
“We have to remember that a lot of this process happened during fires in 2017 and 2018,” said 2nd District Supervisor Maureen Mulheren. “As we watched in Lake and Mendocino counties, there were many people that were extremely concerned about fire safety, not only for their business, but for their homes.”
The board approved staff’s request to apply CalFire standards and requirements when determining whether the removal of a protected tree species was proper under the heading of safety concerns.
Lastly, staff created a form for affidavits on tree removal, to see if information warrants further inquiry or if the evidence provided is sufficient to grant or deny the application. The board directed staff to simplify the affidavit form, which is four pages long and asks for an array of specific information on tree removal conditions, and to consider incorporating language from a memo provided by local lawyer and cannabis policy expert Hannah Nelson.
Nelson spoke in public comment and voiced concerns with overreach in the ordinance, saying, “There are significant legal issues at stake here.”
Supervisor Williams expressed frustration with the idiosyncrasies of the 2017 ordinance multiple times during the discussion.
“I think the intent of our ordinance was to keep people from getting permitted and from getting licensed, and it’s been very successful at that,” he said. “It was not about effectively transitioning existing farms into the legal market. It was about shutting the doors and making sure people couldn’t get through.”
It appears local cannabis cultivators agree, as the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) on Wednesday wrote to Governor Gavin Newsom and other state lawmakers requesting urgent intervention in the Mendocino County permitting process. Read their letter here.
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.