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Appeal of cannabis project near Buellton continued

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Concerns about odor, the number and length of harvests, water use and the impact of pumping on the Santa Maria River prompted the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission to continue a hearing on an appeal of a cannabis cultivation project near Buellton until Feb. 2.

Commissioners unanimously agreed on Nov. 10 to continue Blair and Dianne Pence’s appeal of a land use permit granted to Kevin Kruse for the El Dorado Gardens cultivation project at 1807 W. Highway 246 so Kruse can revise the project and staff can provide more information on water use and odor control.

The site is about 2 miles west of Buellton and adjacent to Pence Vineyards & Winery, and both properties are long and narrow, preventing a significant buffer from the wine grapes, which was one of the 16 issues raised in the appeal.

Other appeal issues included impacts to air quality and biological resources; inconsistencies with county plans as well as the Williamson Act; violating state law by pumping water from the Santa Ynez Alluvial Basin; inadequate transportation, security, landscaping and lighting plans; and harming the financial health of the winery and tasting room.

Blair Pence said the project is identical to a previous illegal cannabis operation on the property that, as a result of odor, pushed the revenue at his tasting room from $10,000 a month down to $1,000 a month, and he noted 85% of the winery’s income is from direct-to-consumer sales on-site.

Subsurface water flow.jpg

A drawing included in Blair and Dianne Pence's appeal of the El Dorado Gardens cannabis cultivation project purports to show how the operation's wells will draw off water that otherwise would flow into the Santa Ynez River Basin. The drawing shows the new, deeper well at the south end of the property, indicated by the longer red line, but the applicant's presentation shows the new well at the opposite end of the property.

“They’re betting on my business,” Pence said of the El Dorado project.

The land use permit allows cultivating 35 acres of cannabis outdoors under hoop houses and operating a nursery in an existing 5,000-square-foot greenhouse on a 182.9-acre parcel.

In addition, six 12,500-gallon water tanks would be installed for irrigation, although water use would be 5,000 acre-feet less per year than previous crops grown there, according to the application.

But commissioners cited inconsistencies in the number and length of harvests and questioned the reduction in water use; however, they were not unanimous on whether the project would violate state law by diverting water from the Santa Ynez River, as the appeal claimed.

Eva Turenchalk, representing Kruse, said he applied for three harvests per year as a contingency against unfavorable conditions but only intended to have two per year and was willing to specify that in the project description.

“I’m not in support of the project if it’s allowed three harvests per year,” said 5th District Commissioner Dan Blough, who also didn’t buy Pence’s assertion the project violated state law because it would pump water that otherwise would flow into the Santa Ynez River.

Subsurface basins.jpg

A map from an El Dorado Gardens cannabis cultivation presentation shows the subsurface basins and the project's new well, left blue dot at top, being 1.5 miles from the Santa Ynez River but still tapped into the same subsurface basin.

“For me, the water issue, I find this disingenuous — sorry,” Blough said, adding he believes the State Water Resources Control Board’s intent was to not divert water from a stream to irrigate cannabis.

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But 1st District Commissioner Michael Cooney said of all the cannabis projects along Highway 246 the commission has reviewed, this one might warrant further environmental review.

“I’d love to hear an impartial analysis of water use,” Cooney said. “The importance of this issue is so much to this project.”

Planning Director Lisa Plowman said it’s up to the state to determine whether the water would be drawn from the underground flow into the river basin, but the board could determine there’s no environmental impact on water because the water use would be less than before.

Cooney said he’s not convinced of that reduction in use without proof: “That’s a dangerous assumption.”

Chairman and 4th District Commissioner Larry Ferini said testimony indicated two harvests each lasting three weeks per year, but the transportation management plan called for three harvests each lasting four weeks per year.

He wanted harvest numbers clarified and asked for more information on water use.

Distances from grow.jpg

A map from Kevin Kruse's application for a cannabis cultivation project shows the area of cultivation in lime green on El Dorado Gardens property on lower half, with the grape vines in green outlined in yellow on the Pence Vineyards & Winery property on the upper half. Blair Pence said he's ready to plant another 50 acres of vines on the north side of his property above the cannabis cultivation areas but is holding off because of the project. 

Odor was a major issue for 3rd District Commissioner John Parke, who said he’d spent hundreds of hours “on the ground” in that area, often unable to smell cannabis right at a grow site and other times smelling it far from any legal grows.

“Odor is a complete mystery,” Parke said. “We never should dismiss it, that it doesn’t exist, [but] we should never say, ‘Aha, we know exactly where it’s coming from.’”

For that reason, he said an adaptive odor control plan should be required of this and every cultivation project.

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