Remote and mountainous with sweeping views and mild temperatures year-round, one Santa Barbara County canyon has become a cannabis battleground, where residents are clashing with growers in a fight to preserve their way of life.
Located southeast of Santa Maria, Tepusquet Canyon is home to a remote community of cattle ranches, wineries and private homes on about 9,000 acres, or roughly 14 square miles. Associated with the communities of Sisquoc and Garey, the combined region is home to about 400 people.
“None of us live out there because we are normal, in the best possible way,” longtime Tepusquet Canyon resident Lil Clary said with a smile. "We like the privacy, the peace and quiet. We like not seeing our neighbors."
Fellow Tepusquet resident Renee O'Neill classifies herself as a country girl living in her version of paradise.
"Our dream has always been to get to a point in our lives that we can afford to live in a place with a lot of land and horses," she said. "We live in God's country."
Tepusquet Canyon is also the current or future home of 20 cannabis cultivators and seven manufacturers who have registered their intentions with county officials to continue or enter into the marijuana business.
Those growers are attracted to the area for many of the same reasons that residents are.
“It is all hundreds of acres of parcels. You know that you can go sit in the middle and not bother anybody,” said Bruce Watkins, a cannabis grower with operations in Tepusquet as well as grows in other parts of the state and the country.
Fellow grower Helios Dayspring, president of House of Holistics Corp., a medical marijuana delivery service in San Luis Obispo County, said the canyon represents his identity: "It's the mountains, it's the beauty -- that's California."
Growers coexist with residents, and sharing the canyon has created conflicts — a microcosom of the struggle going on in unincorporated areas across the state.
Residents are concerned about a lack of resources, along with increased traffic and security issues, while cultivators are worried about restrictions on the freedom to grow their businesses where they choose.
Both have reached out to county officials through petitions and public meetings: Canyon residents want the county to restrict cannabis growers from expanding in Tepusquet, while growers want the freedom to do business without restraint.
A committee forms from crises
Though the residents of Tepusquet Canyon value their privacy, many have banded together to help preserve their homes and way of life.
The Tepusquet Crisis Committee was born a few years ago out of an effort to communicate and educate area residents about concerns relating to wildfires in the remote region. The committee was made up of a small group that relayed information and coordinated firefighting efforts.
Last year, however, when state laws relating to the adult use of cannabis changed, the group grew and took on a new mission: to restrict cannabis cultivation in their canyon.
The crisis committee now has more than 40 members, who are easy to pick out in a crowd during public meetings — they all sport purple sun visors with "Tepusquet Crisis Committee" embroidered on the front.
“We aren’t against the cannabis growers. Tepusquet is just not the right place for it,” O’Neill said, adding committee members would oppose any large-scale agricultural operation that wanted to move into the canyon.
Water is a scarce resource in the craggy canyon region, according to residents, who fear their resource will be used up by marijuana farms.
“Some residents' wells failed during the drought,” O’Neill said.
Earlier this year, Santa Barbara County leaders required current and future cannabis cultivators and manufacturers to register their locations, future intentions and inventory, which included their water plans.
Nearly 35 percent of the registered cannabis ventures planned to or currently use a private well for water. Additional wells in places like Tepusquet could feed worries about cannabis cultivators using a lot of water for their operations.
The committee's water worries are matched by their fear of fire.
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The La Brea fire, which burned more than 88,000 acres, including parts of Tepusquet Canyon in 2009, is frequently cited as an example of the dangers of marijuana cultivation, as it was determined by county fire investigators that a propane stove at an illegal cannabis plantation sparked the blaze.
Another concern is traffic, specifically large delivery trucks that could create hazards on the narrow, undivided Tepusquet Canyon Road.
Tepusquet Canyon Road, which connects Foxen Canyon Road to Highway 166, twists and turns through the area, while a few steep, unpaved roadways spiderweb through the region, connecting the large parcels of land with the rest of the world.
"We've got traffic coming up and down all day and night," O'Neill said.
Like other communities, Tepusquet Canyon residents also have concerns relating to security, odor and farming practices.
“We’ve always have been concerned over the years that someone will discover Tepusquet and we will wake up one day and it will be built up and there will be houses everywhere,” O’Neill said. “Now, we have the cannabis growers in the canyon.”
Cannabis growers want to bring new life to 'junk land'
In addition to the beauty and size of land parcels in Tepusquet Canyon, the growing conditions for marijuana are right and make good business sense.
The canyon has a microclimate of its own. On the southern end, wind and fog from the ocean work to keep the area cool and humid. The interior of the canyon, shielded from coastal winds, is warmer and drier than other parts of the canyon and the Central Coast region.
During the summer months, temperatures can climb well over 100 degrees in the interior Tepusquet areas.
“If you are looking at it from a business standpoint, it is not only stunning, but we are two and a half hours north of Los Angeles, three and a half south of the Bay area. We have a perfect agriculture microclimate — year-round temperate,” Watkins explained.
Beyond the climate and central location, land prices make the area attractive to cannabis growers.
Local real estate agency Keller Williams Coastal Valley, has a 50-plus acre parcel of land for sale for less than $200,000.
“The land in Tepusquet is cheap because by the county’s own records, it is junk land. It is unusable; they couldn’t consider any use for it,” Watkins said.
Watkins called the area “junk land” because of the terrain and due to its location that is separate from other developed areas, which makes housing and other development projects hard to complete in the area zoned for both agriculture and residential uses.
Watkins asserts that he and other growers in the region are good neighbors, offering as an example the fact that he opened his property to firefighters during this year's Alamo fire, which burned more than 28,000 acres in and around the canyon, in an effort to help. The cause of the Alamo fire is still under investigation.
Watkins believes the Tequsquet Crisis Committee's concerns originate from a fear of change. He said he's reached out to the committee on multiple occasions, offering to discuss their concerns, but hasn't received a response.
“You have to look at this industry as any real estate industry. Just like when someone wants to come in and build a hotel or build a shopping mall, or even build an extension to their house, there is always going to be some people that get upset in the local neighborhood about that,” Watkins said. “I get it. It is fear. They react to what they’ve heard, the rumors. When you leave people to their worst fears, their fears only grow worse.”
Growers in Tepusquet have been lobbying Santa Barbara County leaders not to add any new regulations to the state laws that make cannabis cultivation legal in California.
“We are really good people. We try to hire like-minded, local people and try to do right by everybody. Sometimes you just can’t please everybody,” Dayspring said.
“We are up there because, frankly, no one else can see us. We are not hiding. We are standing up publicly and saying we are up there. We are not hiding from the law. We are just not close to a school,” he added.
Board of Supervisors to settle the battle
As the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors takes up the issues related to managing the expanded use of cannabis in the county, it will have to take a close look at the snapshot that is the battle for the future of the industry in Tepusquet Canyon.
Though state laws and procedures will kick in on Jan. 1, Santa Barbara County's moratorium on new marijuana businesses will last until March, giving the board time to weigh laws dictating how cannabis growers use the land they're on, pay taxes and how much they will pay.
The future of Tepusquet Canyon hangs in the balance.
Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.