We Have a Dream: A Commercial Cannabis-Free Bennett Valley
By Craig S. Harrison
Exclusion zones, where it is forbidden to commercially cultivate, process, or sell marijuana, have wide popular support. A poll commissioned by Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods in 2018, found that 70% of county voters approve of exclusion zones. PRMD’s 2021 survey found that support increased to 74%. Allowing communities to chart their own destinies is especially compelling given that cultivation of cannabis was legalized directly by the voters. Many who voted for Proposition 64 abhor commercial cannabis activities in their neighborhoods.
This issue should be a no-brainer for Bennett Valley and many other neighborhoods. PRMD recently completed the formal scoping process under the California Environmental Quality Act, and solicited comment on what the environmental impact report for revising the Cannabis Ordinance should analyze. Six organizations asked the county to designate all parcels within the Bennett Valley Area Plan as a cannabis exclusion zone: Bennett Valley Community Association, Bennett Ridge Community Association, Bennett Valley Grange, Bennett Valley Grape Growers, Sonoma Mountain Preservation, and Bennett Valley Citizens for Safe Development. Letters can be accessed here.
Designating cannabis exclusion zones would be good for Bennett Valley residents, growers, and the County. Exclusion zones are used widely to restrict vacation rentals, and residents have been requesting that Bennett Valley be declared a cannabis exclusion zone since the original ordinance was approved in 2016. Bennett Valley residents have strongly resisted commercial cannabis activity here. There have been 17 attempts to cultivate within the Bennett Valley Area Plan, and only two survive. One property on Matanzas Creek Lane where cannabis growers stopped growing just sold at a $300,000 loss. Many potential growers hail from elsewhere, and realtors fail to disclose to them that their time, money, and efforts would be better spent elsewhere.
The Bennett Valley area plan is ideal for designating parcels because since 1979 it has had unique zoning features. These include limitations on commercial development (Land Use Policy 2), requiring sufficient services such as law enforcement before development (Land Use Policy 3), and design review for structures bigger than 200 square feet, so as to protect scenic corridors and open vistas from visual blight such as hoophouses and industrial greenhouses (multiple land use, open space, and scenic corridor policies). Bennett Valley is designated as a Class 3 Marginal Groundwater Area, and cannabis cultivation affects water supply for humans as well as five species of endangered or threatened species (mostly amphibians) that inhabit the Matanzas Creek watershed. Moreover, much of Bennett Valley is designated as high or very high fire risk.
An overall goal of the revised cannabis program should be to reduce the angst and simmering hostility between growers and rural neighborhood residents. After six years, it is evident that the needs and desires of these groups are incompatible. Eliminating communities such as Bennett Valley from the permitting system would result in fewer complaints and fewer permit appeals. County staff could redirect its time and resources to processing applications outside of exclusion zones and to enforcement.
Albert Einstein observed that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Continuing to allow cannabis cultivation scattered throughout the county in areas where there is strong local resistance is a nonsensical policy, and would prolong the program’s obvious failures. Once exclusion zones are designated, many controversies will disappear. We hope PRMD and Supervisor Gorin are paying attention to neighborhoods and will not continue to cater to and cheerlead for the cannabis industry.