Although more than 1,000 state-issued temporary cannabis licenses are active in Santa Barbara County — the highest number in the state — fears that an ensuing deluge of county permit applications would inundate staff have so far been unfounded.
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As of Aug. 27, the county was processing just nine applications for land use permits and one application for a conditional use permit; none had been approved.
As a result, the workload anticipated after the Jan. 1 legalization of recreational cannabis in California has not been as heavy as anticipated when county officials were hammering out cannabis control ordinances and trying to estimate how much staff time it would take to implement the new regulations.
“It’s lighter than what we expected because the Coastal Commission has not reviewed the ordinances for the Coastal Zone,” said Steve Mason, assistant director of the County Planning and Development Department, where cannabis businesses start the process of becoming legal operators.
Mason indicated the flow of applications could pick up once the California Coastal Commission certifies the county’s cannabis ordinances and operators in the Coastal Zone feel confident about getting a permit.
The trickle could also become a flood as cannabis business owners realize their temporary state licenses are about to expire, and they have to get through the county process before they can apply for annual state licenses.
Once a cannabis business obtains a land use or conditional use permit from Planning and Development, the owner can apply for a county business license from the County Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office.
With both of those in hand, the owner can then apply for an annual state license.
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However, without both county and state licenses, the cannabis business is out of compliance and facing criminal as well as civil consequences.
Somewhere between 100 and 120 business entities hold the 1,058 active temporary marijuana licenses in the county, said Dennis Bozanich, deputy county executive officer.
That’s down from earlier this year.
“We were up to 1,350,” Bozanich said.
Of the nine land use permit applications that have been submitted from among those operators, two are from the Buellton area, two are from Los Alamos, three are from the Lompoc area, one is from Cuyama and one is from Goleta, Bozanich said.
The single application for a conditional use permit is from the Tepusquet area where, like Cebada Canyon near Lompoc, the more stringent permit is required, Bozanich said.
All of the applications are for cultivation except the one from Goleta, which is for a nursery-only operation. No one has applied yet for manufacturing, distribution, testing or retail permits.
However, Bozanich said about 35 cannabis operators have had planner consultations, sort of an intermediate step allowing a cannabis business owner to get his ducks in a row before submitting a permit application.
Some of the consultations have been with cultivators growing cannabis in hoop houses.
Because the county has yet to come up with a revised ordinance for the long, curved hoop structures used to shade crops and regulate temperature and moisture, cannabis operators who are using them are reluctant to submit a use permit application.
But most of the consultations have been with operators from the Carpinteria area who can’t apply for permits because the Coastal Commission has not certified the county’s cannabis ordinances for the Coastal Zone.
The lack of Coastal Commission certification is also why retail permits are on hold, Bozanich said.
In approving county cannabis ordinances, the Board of Supervisors decided a maximum of five retail operations will be allowed in the county, with no more than two allowed in any supervisorial district, and retail permits will be allocated through a random drawing.
Bozanich said it wouldn’t be fair to exclude Coastal Zone applicants from the drawing just because the ordinances haven’t been certified, so the drawing won’t be held until after the Coastal Commission issues an approval.
County officials are essentially finished tinkering with cannabis ordinances.
“We don’t want to go changing anything,” Bozanich said.
But that doesn’t mean the county is through with its outreach. Officials are planning to hold a licensing information meeting Monday, Sept. 17, in hopes of moderating that potential wave of permit applications.
The meeting will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Supervisors Hearing Room on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building at 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.
“It’s so the county can inform the industry about what our expectations are over getting their permit applications in,” Bozanich said of the meeting.
The state’s temporary licenses will expire Dec. 31, and the Legislature is trying to come up with a way to allow operations to continue after that date.
That hadn't happened, however, as of Aug. 31, the last day either house could pass a bill.
If a cannabis business owner obtains a temporary state license Dec. 1, the business can operate for a full 120 days, which will take it beyond the Dec. 31 expiration date, but the owner can’t obtain an extension, Bozanich said.
Cannabis businesses that have applied for an annual state license before Dec. 31 do have the option of applying for a 90-day extension on their temporary licenses.
“But at the end of that 90-day extension, that (license) goes away,” Bozanich said.
That’s why county officials don’t want temporary license holders to delay applying for use permits.
“We’d have a heck of a time processing all the permits before they expire,” Bozanich said. “We really do need people to, if they continue in cultivation, in particular, to get a permit.”
That’s especially critical for those cultivating in hoop houses in the North County.
“The time to start their nursery is January-February, with the idea of getting plants in the ground by March,” Bozanich said. “They have to have all this permit and license process completed by then.
“Those (who need) conditional use permits — that takes some effort,” he added. “That can take six, nine, 12 months with the appeal period.”
A cannabis business that fails to obtain a county use permit, county business license and state annual license before its temporary license expires will face considerable liability.
“It will be unlicensed and subject to enforcement action,” Bozanich said. “It’s highly likely there would be criminal exposure if they’re growing large amounts without any license.
“Even civil and environmental fines can be up to $100 per plant per day, for example if their grow is too large in size — if they have a permit for half an acre and they’re growing five acres,” he said.
“Anything more than six plants is not personal, it’s commercial under the law.”
Mason said money for code enforcement was released July 1, and the Planning and Development Department has been working with the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices to review the ordinances, map out an enforcement plan and assemble a team.
“Complaints have been fairly modest,” Mason said. “The complaints about odor have been reduced. That could be from the climate or from odor control. We’re not sure.”
He said the county is still getting complaints from Tepusquet residents east of Santa Maria, and a few from the Lompoc Hills.
“Generally, it’s the same ones,” he added.
Initially, the team won’t be going out to conduct inspections, looking for violations.
“Our approach to … enforcement is going after the ones that are a danger, the ones too close to a school,” Mason said.
Bozanich said the team is investigating operations in several locations in various parts of the county, giving the highest priority to those operating without licenses.
“Given the current environment with all the changes going on, we’re investigating whether they might have had a license before,” he said. “At sites where they may have had a temporary license, we’re making sure the cleanup is done and all other requirements are met.
“Our purpose is to try to get people to comply,” Bozanich added. “The good news is, people want to remain compliant, for the most part.”
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