Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Sues Santa Barbara County

By Nick Schou   |   April 30, 2020

You might recognize the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis from various letters to the editor and reader-submitted editorials that have run in the Montecito Journal, Carpinteria’s Coastal View News, and other local newspapers in Santa Barbara county. Although the group claims not to oppose cannabis per se, its members have consistently decried what they say is a lack of enforcement by county officials that has allowed certain communities, particularly Carpinteria, to become overwhelmed with the distinct odor of flowering marijuana.

On February 27, three Carpinteria residents who are members of the coalition, Gregory and Marllus Gandrud and Paul Ekstrom, sued nearby cannabis farms, Ever-Bloom, Ednigma, Melodious Plots, and Saga Farms, alleging that the smell was unbearable. Just two months later, on April 23, the coalition filed yet another anti-cannabis lawsuit, this time against the county itself. Their complaint cites the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors’ recent decision to uphold a cannabis permit for Busy Bee’s Organics of Buellton, which last year received a land use permit from the county’s Planning Commission for a 22-acre cannabis farm in the town, despite protests from certain community members.

A search of the California Secretary of State website shows that the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis was incorporated in May 2019, with the aforementioned Carpinteria plaintiff Ekstrom as chief financial officer. However, the coalition’s CEO is Blair Pence, a wealthy land developer turned winemaker (and vocal anti-cannabis advocate) based in Buellton whose address is located just down the road from Busy Bee’s Organics. The new lawsuit claims that the county’s environmental review process is inadequate and that the supervisor’s three-to-two vote to allow a large-scale cannabis operation amid Buellton’s “well-established” wineries was misguided.

“This lawsuit is a last resort,” argues Debra Eagle, a coalition board member. “Industrial scale cannabis operations in the Santa Rita Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area) threaten our future. The Board has ignored these issues while violating several laws, so we have been forced into this litigation in order to bring these operations in line with state law and prevent cannabis growers from destroying Santa Barbara’s communities, tourism, and wine economy. Respect and moderation is all we ask for.”

The coalition’s lawsuit also argues that the county has a legal obligation to investigate every grower affidavit claiming that they were already in operation before January 16, 2016 and must also hold public hearings on the results of these investigations. Although 200 such affidavits were filed, the complaint states, the county failed to investigate any of them, despite the fact that the affidavits are being used by the growers to obtain state-issued grow permits.

“The county has a duty under the law to vet each affidavit that was filed,” said Robert Curtis, an attorney with Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis LLC, and the lead lawyer on the case. “It’s been four years, yet they refuse to do so.” Marc Chytilo, a Santa Barbara-based environmental attorney who filed the official state paperwork for the coalition last year, is also attached to the case. “The Board has continually ignored fundamental environmental principles in overriding twelve separate significant adverse environmental impacts,” he argued. “Without analyzing the impacts, the county cannot resolve the fundamental conflicts between these two interests. We need to find appropriate sites for cannabis cultivation where existing farms won’t be forced out.”

Sara Rotman, owner of Busy Bee’s Organics, declined to comment for this story, deferring questions to spokesperson Andrew Rice. “We’re not surprised that the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis founder and CEO Blair Pence has followed through on his numerous public threats to fight every single cannabis project that is approved in a two mile stretch of the Santa Ynez Valley near his winery,” Rice said. “Pence has been litigious in the past. We’re not his first target and we won’t be the last. This lawsuit is an abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to obstruct the farming of a pesticide-free, organic, legal, and environmentally friendly crop.”

Rice argued that the coalition, having failed to sway public officials with its anti-cannabis stance, is using its deep pockets in a cynical attempt to accomplish the same goal. “This frivolous litigation attempts to overturn unanimous approval by local and state governments as well as undermining the broad public support Santa Barbara voters have shown for cannabis legalization,” he said. “We are confident that the County and Busy Bee’s will prevail in court. In the meantime, we will continue farming the best sun-grown legal cannabis on earth while providing jobs and taxes for the people of Santa Barbara County.”

Susan Petrovich, a lawyer for Busy Bee’s Organics, also expressed frustration with the lawsuit. “We are disappointed to see that the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis is filing a CEQA lawsuit against a model, outdoor, sun-grown cannabis farm that is frequently held as the gold-standard by government officials,” she said. “More than ten local and state agencies have reviewed and approved the project and found it to meet or exceed their rigorous requirements. This is an end run around the long-since expired statute of limitations to challenge the County’s cannabis laws.”


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