Cannabis Under Fire, Part Three

By Nick Schou   |   July 23, 2020

Ever since the Santa Barbara Grand Jury issued its damning report last month on the explosion of cannabis cultivation in Santa Barbara County, a widening ripple of reaction has circled around Carpinteria, Goleta, and Buellton, where residents hope the controversy will aid their efforts to curtail the industry. As the Montecito Journal reported last week, Carpinteria residents didn’t even wait for the Grand Jury report to come out to take their complaints directly to the Federal government. A letter signed by more than 100 residents and several neighborhood and business groups and addressed to U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna went out to the Justice Department’s Los Angeles office in March, and while the agency refused to make any official comment on the status of any investigation, Carpinteria residents who were interviewed by the Grand Jury confirmed to the Journal that the letter has already led to follow-up communication from Federal investigators.

“Oh, they’re investigating, alright,” asserted one resident who asked not to be identified by name, who added that investigators were particularly interested in the report’s allegation that the county had failed to turn over all the documents it asked for. Barney Melekian, an assistant CEO with the county, who is on vacation, was unavailable to respond to an interview request; he previously told the Journal that his office couldn’t comment on any of the Grand Jury’s allegations until it finishes its official response to the Grand Jury’s report, which is expected to be completed within 90 days.

Meanwhile, official complaints about the county’s cannabis policy from the towns most affected by it continue to mount. On June 24, five days before the report became public, Carpinteria Mayor Wade Nomura sent a letter to supervisors (along with an attached resolution signed by all five city council members) complaining of ongoing “crime and nuisances” associated with cannabis grows operating around the city. “The County’s investment in enforcement must be increased to match the amount and sophistication of illegal activity currently being experienced both within the City and greater Carpinteria Valley,” Nomura wrote. His letter demanded three immediate actions: an investigation into “all odor emitting cannabis facilities” to be followed up with closure orders where necessary, the closure of all “non-conforming” cannabis businesses that have illegally expanded their operations, and finally, the implementation of a robust Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process that would more adequately address the cannabis industry’s impact on the health and safety of local residents.

Three days after the Grand Jury report’s release, on July 2, Goleta Mayor Paula Perotte sent an official complaint to Supervisors, outlining the city’s concern about cannabis farms “of direct adjacency to residences” that are “materially and negatively impacting Goleta residents and our community.” Backed by Goleta’s city council, Perotte wrote that the CUPs currently in place for farms located next door to residents were effectively forcing residents to act as an around-the-clock neighborhood watch. Hapless townspeople, she complained, are being forced to “remain constantly vigilant and monitor County permit applications into the future in order to ensure cannabis cultivation does not impact them. Aside from demanding farms be set back further away from residences, Perotte also bemoaned the fact that the County’s cannabis plan for Goleta included “no odor abatement plan,” which had led to a plethora of problems far beyond just those of homeowners but extending to “local hotels/motels, retail, restaurants, etc.”

On July 15, Buellton Mayor Holly Sierra joined the chorus of complaints about the County’s cannabis policy and in particular, its impacts on her city. “The most noticeable of these impacts is the pervasive odor which emanates from the cultivation operations,” Sierra told supervisors. “Given the prevailing wind patterns and the locations of a number of cultivation operations in proximity to the City, our residents, businesses and visitors are exposed to this odor, which can be quite strong, particularly in the later afternoon. This odor leads to concerns of adverse impacts to the City’s business community, tourism industry, property values and the overall quality of life for our residents.”

The day before Sierra sent that letter, Supervisors voted 4-1 to update its cannabis policy by having new cannabis farms submit to a CUP process, be no closer than 50 feet to property boundaries and require all cannabis oil processing facilities to be housed inside an enclosed space utilizing enhanced odor mitigation technology. However, the changes only affect inland county areas, not Carpinteria, much to the chagrin of residents there. “This isn’t even about whether cannabis should be legal,” said one longtime resident who asked to remain anonymous and who voted in favor of a recent county ballot measure to tax recreational cannabis. “I was like, pot: Big deal, who cares?” the person said. “I did not realize they were planning to turn the whole county into the cannabis mecca of the whole world.”

“When you tell people you are from Santa Barbara, everybody all over the world knows where it is and what it represents,” said another Carpinteria resident. “Santa Barbara’s brand is beautiful beaches, amazing mountain views, wonderful food and wine, and a prosperous lifestyle attracting all kinds of creative people from Hollywood as well as artists, writers, and thinkers. With all that, why are we turning Santa Barbara into a place that will be known only as the land of marijuana?”

To Smell or Not to Smell

Last January, following up on complaints about the stench of cannabis –a phenomenon I couldn’t help but notice for three hours straight while attending my son’s Santa Barbara High School tennis team’s match against Carpinteria High School that month – I toured the city of Carpinteria with Peter Dugre, spokesman of CARP Growers, which represents licensed cannabis growers in the area. Driving around town and down roads lined with greenhouses full of marijuana back then, I noticed the occasional smell of cannabis, but nothing as powerful as the dank stench that permeated the high school campus during my afternoon there.

On July 20, along with numerous other recipients, I received from Dugre a press release he sent on behalf of CARP Growers advertising the fact that the group had just donated $25,000 worth of community grants to local organizations. “Cannabis farmers in Carpinteria are supporting youth-serving organizations in an effort intended to make safe childcare available and affordable,” the release states, adding that the donations included “$21,000 for scholarships at Carpinteria Children’s Project and Girls Inc. of Carpinteria” as well as “$3,800 in support of extra expenses (including end-of-school posters and leis for graduating seniors) incurred at this year’s Carpinteria High School Graduation.”

Speaking of cannabis and Carpinteria High School, this week, I took a brief tour of the town with Russell Ruiz, a longtime Carpinteria resident and outspoken cannabis activist who’d sent me a lengthy and angry letter regarding my ongoing coverage of his town. “Neither the County nor the Courts are going to put property owners in Carpinteria who have made the vast investments in their farms, out of business,” Ruiz wrote me. “If the greenhouses went out of business, Carpinteria agricultural land would become some of the most sought after properties for residential development in Southern California. We cannot let that happen. I do not care if local farmers grow flowers for decoration or cannabis for consumption (and) I know that non-farmers trying to tell farmers how to do their business is bound to failure.”

After lunch at Teddy’s by the Sea (during which I smelled burgers and ocean breeze but not cannabis), Ruiz and I caravanned around town. Just as he’d promised, while some odor was still noticeable in certain isolated areas along Craven and Foothill Roads, it was generally absent, and nowhere was its absence more obvious to me – especially given my last experience there – than at the high school. So, for the record – and in anticipation of any further letters from folks who don’t happen to live across the street from a marijuana farm – the Journal can confirm that at least to a casual tourist on a random visit, Carpinteria and particularly its high school seem to smell just fine.

Montecito’s Missing Dispensary

As the Journal reported last week, Montecito is noticeably not on the list of communities that are being considered for new storefront cannabis dispensaries by County planners. Controversy over the town’s absence on this list has been building for months, ever since supervisors first announced that any area with its own community plan would be asked to participate in discussions over where new dispensaries would be located. Anna Carrillo, a Carpinteria resident who has been following the debate in her city, says she first brought up the question about why Montecito was being excluded from consideration during the public comment session of County Supervisor meetings as early as late last year. “I brought it up in December and again in January,” she said, adding that Lisa Plowman, the County’s Director of Planning and Development, had also raised the issue with the Board but that nobody had acted on it.

“Since they were considering one for Summerland and Toro Canyon, I wondered why they weren’t also including Montecito,” Carrillo said. According to Carrillo, Assistant County CEO Melekian initially had told her that a parcel now being used as a parking lot for the CVS pharmacy on Coast Village Road was available for consideration. But when she followed up, Carrillo says a County staffer told her that the parcel was actually located within Santa Barbara city limits, and thus not within the area affected by Montecito’s community plan. Because the issue of Montecito not being included on the list of communities eligible for dispensaries kept coming up at neighborhood meetings in Carpinteria and Goleta, among others, Carrillo followed up with a July 15 email to Plowman asking for an explanation as to whether the CVS location was or was not eligible.

Plowman responded to Carrillo that same day, saying that the lot was in fact zoned in such a way that made it eligible, despite rumors to the contrary. “The lot is currently used for parking,” she said. “I did raise this information at the Board and they chose not to include the Montecito Plan area. I will ensure the staff is aware of this parcel and its zoning designation.” The Journal followed up with Supervisor Das Williams, asking him if he could clarify why Montecito wasn’t being considered for a dispensary. “According to Planning & Development staff,” he answered via a text message, “no site in the limited amount of commercial, outside the school buffer, has the correct zoning.”

It will still be several weeks before Supervisors decide where to place additional cannabis dispensaries. That’s when Melekian will present his findings to the board. While Carpinteria residents are hoping that any dispensary serving their area will be located as far away as possible in Summerland, they’ve given up hope that Montecito might have been included in the contest. “I consider the whole Montecito question a dead horse,” Carrillo concluded. “Of course, everybody becomes interested in cannabis once it’s in their backyard. If it’s away from everybody, nobody would have any concerns.”


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