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Santa Barbara County Planning Commission rejects appeal of Castlerock cannabis cultivation project west of Buellton
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Santa Barbara County Planning Commission rejects appeal of Castlerock cannabis cultivation project west of Buellton

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An appeal of a land use permit for a cannabis cultivation project off Highway 246 west of Buellton was rejected Wednesday in a unanimous decision of the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission.

After several hours of presentations and public testimony, commissioners voted 5-0 to reject the appeal of a permit granted to Castlerock Family Farms II, to be located on the Williams Ranch, even though several said the project will still end up before the Board of Supervisors.

“I’m not concerned about my decision today because it’s going to get appealed,” said 5th District Commissioner Dan Blough.

As approved, Castlerock Family Farms plans to cultivate just under 23 acres of cannabis under hoop houses in three areas of a 278-acre portion of a nearly 677-acre ranch more than 2 miles west of Buellton, about 1,800 feet from Santa Rosa Road and 1,700 feet from Highway 246.

Livestock grazing will continue on the ranch, but cannabis will replace low-value row crops, allowing the ranch to continue operation, according to documents provided by Castlerock.

A land use permit for the initially proposed project granted to Castlerock by the planning director in July 2019 was appealed by John Wagner of Peake Ranch Winery, whose wine tasting room is approximately 1.5 miles away on Santa Rosa Road.

Wagner cited 10 issues in his appeal, including failure to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, the General Plan and land use regulations, lack of review by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and inadequate conditions of approval and mitigation monitoring.

Wagner also cited a failure to address health and safety issues and inadequate plans for fencing, security, landscaping, noise control, lighting, revegetation, and management of habitat, wildlife movement and site transportation demand.

In response to Wagner’s concerns, Castlerock eliminated a nursery and two processing buildings, with all processing to be done offsite, reduced the total number of employees to one to five permanent and 10 to 15 additional workers during harvest and added more landscaping to screen the cannabis and hoop houses from Highway 246 and Santa Rosa Road.

The majority of public comment, both written and verbal, was opposed to the project, with many referring to odor, pesticide and terpene drift and the cumulative impacts from the many proposed cannabis cultivation sites along the Santa Rita Valley where numerous vineyards and wineries are already established.

But commissioners generally praised the project for using a small portion of the site for cultivation and its distance from area vineyards, other agricultural areas and residences.

“They’ve changed their project description because they’re listening to us,” said Commissioner John Parke, whose 3rd District encompasses the site. “It’s a clean project. It is not an example of an overexpanded legal nonconforming grow. That’s not the issue here.”

Medical marijuana was grown on the property prior to 2016, but no cannabis has been cultivated there since then, according to documents from Castlerock.

“There’s a very small cultivation area compared to the parcel size, and that allows for a lot of buffering,” Parke noted. “The distance from other uses, particularly vineyards, is important. If [a vineyard] is more than 1,500 feet away, the odds you’re going to get settlement of terpenes is very, very diminished.”

He also said he was skeptical that any odor control systems would be effective on an outdoor grow.

As for cumulative impacts, commissioners agreed they had no way to know how many of the cannabis cultivation projects proposed for the Santa Rita Valley might actually make it to the permit stage, and Castlerock shouldn't be punished for being among the first.

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