MENDOCINO Co, CA, 3/31/23 — The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors finalized an amendment to the tree removal provision of its cannabis ordinance on Tuesday, specifying the rules for cannabis farmers in an attempt to free said cultivators from “veg mod hell,” to use the phrase of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) and local cultivators. Some 30 Phase One applicants for state cannabis licensure have been dinged on their licensing applications because of “vegetation modification” due to, essentially, any tree removal on their cultivation property (which for many cultivators, is also their home).
The Mendocino Cannabis Department (MCD) — the director of which, Kristin Nevedal, resigned Tuesday — asked the board to more clearly define the language earlier this year. The cannabis ordinance reads, “Removal of any commercial tree species as defined by Title 14 California Code of Regulations section 895.1, Commercial Species for the Coast Forest District and Northern Forest District, and the removal of any true oak species (Quercus sp.) or Tan Oak (Notholithocarpus sp.) for the purpose of developing a cannabis cultivation site is prohibited.”
On Tuesday, supervisors voted to define “developing a cannabis cultivation site” as “alteration, grading, removal, or other development of land to create, or expand, a cultivation site”; put another way, clearing explicitly for planting is prohibited. This was the most permissive of the definitions the board had considered at a February meeting.
“This definition will simplify things for people that had removed trees from an area of supporting infrastructure and are not proposing to cultivate in that area,” County Counsel Christian Curtis explained.
Curtis had warned that keeping the existing vagueness could open the board to litigation, but worried that specifying a new definition could as well, should stakeholders argue that Mendocino County is incorrectly administering its ordinance; “Because of the nature of the ambiguity, there is that possibility of that question getting answered by the court, and I don’t see a scenario in which the county isn’t party to that litigation,” he advised.
Two stakeholders — Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center and Attorney Hannah Nelson, who has been a frequent advocate on Mendocino County cannabis issues — wrote a letter to the board proposing that, rather than change the ordinance language, the board conduct a case-by-case review of the stalled Phase One applicants to administer Compliance Plans as a condition of licensure; and develop more specific language, including environmental review, for future Phase Three applicants. This letter was not included alongside the agenda item, but was shared with The Mendocino Voice by Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) Executive Director Michael Katz upon request, and is included as a PDF at the end of this article.
“We are in agreement that guardrails must be put in place to prevent MCD from further obstructing the valid claims of applicants that suspected tree removal was not in violation of the ordinance,” Drell and Nelson wrote, “and that even if it was, in most instances, Phase One applicants would be able to satisfy a Compliance Plan that required an evaluation that would, (1) even with the tree removal, determine the impact to the environment, especially sensitive species and habitat, is less than significant, or, (2) the impacts will be mitigated within the time allowed for a Compliance Plan to bring it within that threshold.”
3rd District Supervisor John Haschak suggested that he and 2nd District Supervisor Maureen Mulheren on the General Government Committee could review the 30 stalled applications to find a path to compliance and licensure. While Mulheren said she “love[s] volunteering for things,” her priority was moving forward on an issue which has already come before the board multiple times.
The supervisors voted to approve the new definition in the ordinance, with Haschak as the lone dissenting vote. In a conversation with The Mendocino Voice Thursday, he said that he believed a case-by-case look at Phase One applications, followed by an environmental review process for implementing Phase Three language, was the best course of action to satisfy stakeholders.
“I still have concerns and I worry about getting sued for lack of environmental review and getting sued for the adoption of the language,” he said in a phone call, adding, “These are the growing pains of making this ordinance work. I’m willing to spend the time that we need to make it happen.”
In line with an idea proposed by 4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde, Haschak plans to talk with Curtis about whether it would be possible to reassess the language for Phase 3 applicants and implement an environmental review process for those new applications.
“We appreciate that the board chose the most reasonable of the definitions presented to it,” said cultivator Monique Ramirez, speaking to represent MCA in Katz’s absence during public comment on the agenda item.
Ramirez went on to explain that cultivators have had a bigger issue with the “implementation” of the ordinance than the ordinance language. For example, one farmer told the board in February that she had been deemed ineligible for grant funding after clearing away two dead trees that fell in her garden. From Ramirez and MCA’s perspective, clearer board instruction was needed on how to permissively implement the ordinance — not necessarily to clarify its definition.
Drell felt similarly, as evidenced by the united front she and Nelson presented in their letter; but she also said that preserving the original purpose of the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) meant prioritizing forest canopy over new cannabis farming, as was a prior board’s intent at the time it created the ordinance.
She argued in public comment that defining the “purpose of developing a cultivation site” as only clearing to plant would leave trees vulnerable to excessive cutting for other cannabis purposes in the future, as Phase Three applicants enter the approval process. CEO Darcie Antle said the county currently has just six Phase Three applicants; in response, 5th District Supervisor Ted Williams said, “There’s just no incentive to do business here [because] we want to save the forest — maybe that’s a good thing.” But Drell emphasized that the uncertainty concerns members of the Willits Environmental Center that she represents.
“Possibly the impacts of building a new access road or two, or a pond, or a parking lot, could be even greater than the tree removal for the cultivation site itself,” she said in public comment. “So we can’t accept that we just assume that the impacts would be insignificant. [W]e would say to the board, resolve the ambiguity, amend the ordinance, but you’ve got to look at the possible environmental impacts.”
1st District Supervisor Glenn McGourty reiterated that cultivators remain subject to all normal outside restrictions such as those in place by Cal Fire, though the county regulates cannabis more rigidly.
“We’re creating a double standard here for one industry versus everybody else,” he said.
Also in the course of discussion, Williams bemoaned the amount of time that has gone into correcting this ordinance. The board has spent several hours of board meetings discussing the ordinance issue in recent months. He dramatically zoomed out the conversation’s scope, looking to hotter, drier weather affecting California’s inland zones.
“We don’t have a plan in this county for what [our] growth looks like when a million people show up: climate refugees,” Williams said. “And we’re never going to get to it because we’re arguing about this weird thing called veg mod.”
Still, cannabis remains a critical part of Mendocino County’s fabric, both economic and cultural. Haschak said that he was heartened to visit the MCD Thursday, where staff met with Antle and Code Enforcement Supervisor John Burkes, who will lead the department in the absence of a director, and discussed how employees could be supported and empowered as things get down to the wire on the path to state licensure.
“The county really is trying to make this work,” Haschak said. “We put a lot of eyes on the department to see what kind of course correction needs to be made.”
The full meeting and board discussion can be viewed on YouTube. The newly amended ordinance and the letter from Drell and Williams are included as PDFs below.Resolution-23-064
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.