Santa Barbara County policymakers are in the middle of a unique task -- creating the infrastructure to make an illicit activity a legitimate one.

On Wednesday morning, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission heard an update on the progress made by county officials as they draft permanent rules for the use, cultivation and sale of marijuana in the county. 

“Taking the cannabis industry and moving from a black market series of enterprises to a regulated industry is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for policymakers,” Dennis Bozanich, deputy county executive officer, said at the top of the meeting held in the county’s Betteravia Government Center.

In February, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors created a special Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Cannabis Operations in the county. Since then, the group -- made up of 5th District Supervisor Larry Lavagnino, 1st District Supervisor Das Williams and representatives from nearly all of the county’s many departments -- have met 13 times and conducted three public town hall meetings.

The group established five smaller working groups to work on different aspects of the issue of cannabis -- land use and development codes, business licensing, tax measures, health impacts and enforcement planning.

“It has been a complicated and complex series of decisions and processes,” Bozanich said.

Cannabis registry sees hundreds of signees

In April, the Board of Supervisors created a registry of current and potential cannabis purveyors to gauge what the potential marijuana industry in Santa Barbara County could look like.

Registration closed June 30, and county leaders now are using the data collected to assist in their policy decisions.

On Wednesday morning, Bozanich reported that the county had received 534 registrations.

According to the registry’s findings, there are about 400 acres of land in the county currently cultivating cannabis, and potential acreage could be more than 1,100 acres.

Overall, the county has more than 149,000 acres of farmland, according to the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commission.

The registry also found currently there are 20 cannabis operations in the Santa Maria Valley, 58 in the Lompoc Valley, 33 in Buellton and 21 in Tepusquet.

Environmental report will be ready soon

The Santa Barbara County Planning Department has been working on a comprehensive environmental impact (EIR) review on the different aspects of the cannabis industry.

Manufacturing, cultivating, processing, laboratory testing, labeling, storing and the wholesale and retail distribution of cannabis all have different potential environmental impacts -- from the smell of processing to the chemicals used in manufacturing marijuana products.

“The first step of this project is the environmental review,” said Dan Klemann, deputy director of Santa Barbara County Long Range Planning Division.

The county contracted with the consulting firm AMEC-Foster Wheeler to create the EIR. Officials began seeking public input July 12 and held two meetings later that month.

“The goal is, if the board is going to allow cannabis uses in the county, we will be able to tear off that EIR when considering land use permit applications we may receive,” Klemann said.

The draft EIR document is expected to be published later this month or in early October. After it is released, there will be a 45-day public comment period.

Agricultural Commission weighs in on weed

“Not only are we having to deal with cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes, we have another variety of cannabis also known as industrial hemp,” said Cathy Fisher, county agricultural commissioner.

On Jan. 1, the California Industrial Hemp Farming Act became the law of the land, permitting the cultivation of industrial hemp in California.

Fisher said she has seen interest in hemp farming in Santa Barbara County and that the California Department of Food and Agriculture is developing a program to administer the hemp farming law.

The variety of hemp that can be grown for industrial use can contain no more than 1 percent of THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana.

Fisher added that the plant, like all marijuana plants and products, is still a federally controlled substance and is illegal on the federal level.

The Agricultural Preserve Advisory Committee (APAC), the group that rules on regulations relating to farmland use, recently said that while cannabis can be cultivated on farmland in the county, the crop could not be counted as a commodity.

Like strawberries and other profitable crops in the county, marijuana couldn’t be counted in the same manner, even though it’s expected to yield high economic returns for farmers.

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A key moment in the process coming Tuesday

The special Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Cannabis Operations in Santa Barbara County will make a presentation at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting with recommendations on how cannabis businesses could be licensed.

“A key moment in this whole process will be Sept. 19, where the Board of Supervisors will be asked to weigh in on which license types they would like to see included or would they like to see a prohibition on everything,” Bozanich said.

There are 17 potential licenses for the cannabis industry.

“If cannabis is allowed in Santa Barbara County, people would be required to get a land use permit," Bozanich said. "The regular planning and development fee structure would apply to them so it would be cost-neutral. A business licensing fee would also be established.” 

Public makes concerns known

On Wednesday morning, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission also heard from members of the public on both sides of the cannabis issue during its meeting at the Betteravia Government Center.

Many residents of Tepusquet Canyon have been vocal and present at each of the county’s meetings about marijuana. They are easy to pick out of the crowd as they all wear purple visors with "Tepusquet Canyon Crisis Committee" written across the front.

Renee O'Neill, of the Tepusquet Canyon Crisis Committee, questioned how the county would be able to enforce the rules it’s been working to create when it isn’t enforcing the rules it already has.

“It’s come to a point where we are pretty much done being patient with this county. Our civil rights are being violated, (and) we are looking into a lawsuit. I have hundreds of thousands of pictures and video of the traffic that goes through our canyon,” O’Neill said.

She alleges that illegal marijuana operations have sprouted in Tepusquet Canyon and that the increased traffic and illegal activity have made her home and neighborhood unsafe.

“If I was building an illegal structure or house, you can bet your sweet bippy the county would be on me,” O’Neill said.

While commissioners on Wednesday heard a number of concerns about how officials would enforce cannabis regulations, marijuana industry advocates urged county leaders to support economic development.   

Liz Rogan, of the Cannabis Business Council of Santa Barbara County, asked the county not to reinvent the wheel.

“The state has done a lot of the work for you. Please keep it an open market. We want to be competitive,” Rogan said.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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