Proposed Marijuana Ordinance Could Change Bennett Valley Forever

Hoop houses on Adobe Road near Petaluma (2018).

The board of supervisors’ proposed cannabis ordinance was apparently drafted by the cannabis industry. The accompanying environmental analysis, required by the California Environmental Quality Act, fails to analyze the cumulative effects of odor, traffic on narrow rural roads, water use, fire risk, and many other issues. The board will consider adopting the proposal, or a revised version of it, on Tuesday, May 18.

The proposal would allow cultivation on parcels 10 acres or more that are zoned agriculture or resources and rural development. As much as 65,733 acres of outdoor cannabis cultivation projects could receive ministerial permits—a backroom process without public knowledge or participation. Today about 50 acres of cannabis are being cultivated in Sonoma County.

The amount of outdoor cultivation would increase from one acre per parcel to 10% of the parcel’s size. A 60-acre parcel that a limited liability corporation just purchased on Bennett Valley Road could cultivate 6 acres. In addition, it allows up to one acre per parcel of greenhouse cultivation, and no limit on cultivation in existing structures. The increased water usage (six times that of vineyards) will further stress our limited supplies, especially as we experience more droughts.

The supervisors propose to eliminate health, safety, and nuisance protections for neighbors who are subjected to noxious terpene pollution. I emailed Supervisor Gorin and asked if she agrees with forcing neighbors who need breathing tubes or have asthma to just live with the stench. She replied that she hadn’t decided.

Hoop house marijuana plantation in Santa Barbara County.

In Bennett Valley, 138 parcels comprising 4,702 acres are 10 or more acres and have the requisite zoning. The proposal would allow 470 acres of outdoor cultivation and at least 138 acres of indoor cultivation. Currently about 2.5 acres are cultivated in Bennett Valley. Outdoor cultivation could be located in hideous hoop houses covered with white plastic that would ruin our scenic landscapes and stuff our landfills with vast mounds of torn plastic. Good thing we banned plastic bags in stores. Indoor cultivation could be in greenhouses that resemble industrial self-storage units. The visual blight would violate the Bennett Valley Area Plan, an issue the environmental analysis neglects to mention.

Using Sonoma County’s own employment projections, the proposal could employ over 12,000 workers in Bennett Valley, who could generate 24,000-48,000 daily vehicle trips. Bennett Valley has under 3,000 residents. This would overwhelm our marginal road system, make emergency evacuation problematic, and violate the Bennett Valley Area Plan.

Bennett Valley has many episodes of thermal inversions throughout the year when the air is still. During such episodes, the stench of heavy terpene molecules settling on the valley floor from 600 acres of cannabis could make many homes unlivable for days or weeks at a time. The county has not done any air quality modeling for Bennett Valley to assess this issue. When a woman in Fulton complained about cannabis odor, a county official replied that if she didn’t like living with it she should move. Must residents who want fresh air have to move to Marin or Napa counties where outdoor cultivation is banned?

While all 600 acres of eligible land is unlikely to become cannabis plantations, even a small increase could change Bennett Valley forever. Despite the obvious problems, the county’s environmental analysis concluded that huge increases in employment and traffic, massive water demands on the Matanzas Creek watershed, and plaguing our homes with noxious terpene fumes constitutes no significant impacts. This is silly.

The county should recognize that the lives of ordinary residents are at least as important as the fantasies of large corporate cannabis enterprises. At a bare minimum, the county should prepare an environmental impact report and genuinely analyze what its proposal would do to Bennett Valley and Sonoma County. Most residents of Bennett Valley voted in favor of Proposition 64 (Adult Use of Marijuana Act) in 2016, but who thought they were voting to fundamentally change Bennett Valley and Sonoma County?

Two countywide groups are opposing the proposed ordinance: The Neighborhood Coalition and Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods.