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Santa Barbara County approves “gargantuan” cannabis “grow” for the Sta. Rita Hills

John Palminteri

CARPINTERIA, Calif. - A zoning permit for SFS Farms, 87 acres of outdoor cannabis cultivation at the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills, the county’s most successful wine region, was approved by the county Board of Supervisors this week with few concessions to the neighboring vintners.

SFS Farms, owned by investors in Colorado and Manhattan Beach, is the largest “grow” approved by the county to date. If it were up and running today, it would be one of the largest cannabis operations in the U.S.; 87 acres is about 65 football fields’ worth of pot.

“I do favor large-size grows,” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who represents the Santa Maria Valley, said at Tuesday’s “virtual” hearing, where, for the first time in more than a year, all five supervisors sat together at the dais, without masks.

“It’s easier to keep an eye on 50 grows than 250 grows.”

Dan Gainey, the owner of the Gainey Vineyard just east of and downwind from SFS Farms; and Ron and Chad Melville, who own a vineyard next to Gainey’s and a wine tasting lounge a mile northeast of SFS Farms, were asking the board to overturn the county Planning Commission’s earlier approval of the SFS Farms operation. Short of that, they wanted the board to cut down its size and require a 500-foot setback from their grapes.

Speaking for the owners, Kurt Ammann, general manager of the Melville Winery, told the board it would be “irresponsible” to approve a permit for SFS Farms. Noting that the Sta. Rita Hills are “one of the best areas in the world to grow grapes,” Ammann said Chad Melville “feels very strongly that the odors from this ‘grow’ are going to have a significant impact on our outdoor tasting ... he has a really hard time with the board approving something that will wind up in litigation between the two neighbors.”

“Inevitably, we will not be able to operate at our current location,” Ammann said.

The vintners fear that the “skunky” smell of so much pot will drive tourists away; and they believe that “terpenes,” the volatile chemical compounds released by marijuana plants, will “taint” their premium grapes, Amman said. While conceding that there is conflicting research on the effects of “terpene taint,” he asked the board to conduct an independent study before allowing such a large “grow” and “seeing how it turns out.”

In all, applications for 900 acres of cannabis cultivation have been submitted to the county for the wine country between Lompoc and Buellton.

Larry Conlan, an attorney for SFS Farms, recalled this month’s ruling in the Busy Bee’s Organics case, in which a Superior Court judge found that the board had amply considered the impacts of the smell of cannabis and the concentration of cannabis operations during environmental review for the cannabis ordinance. The judge, Conlan noted, found no evidence that cannabis odors or terpenes posed a threat to other farms.

“That decision should give this board a lot of comfort in defending this ordinance and this project,” he said.

In the end, Lavagnino suggested that SFS Farms voluntarily provide a larger setback from the Gainey Vineyard and plant a row of trees and bushes between the two properties. SFS Farms agreed to put in the landscaping and set back its marijuana plants 150 feet from the property line, or 100 feet farther than the 50-foot setback required under the county’s permissive cannabis ordinance.

“I’m appreciative,” Ammann said.

No odor controls

The board’s vote on Tuesday was 4-1, with Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents much of the Sta. Rita Hills, voting “no.” Hartmann has long favored amending the ordinance to require a more restrictive zoning permit for all cannabis, called a “conditional use permit.” A CUP would allow the board to require odor controls, limit the size of “grows,” and create buffer zones so as to avoid conflicts with “legacy” farms. The board majority vetoed the idea last year.

On Tuesday, Hartmann called SFS Farms “a gargantuan grow” and said she did not think the county should be giving “windfall profits to a few.” What’s more, SFS Farms would be operating with no odor controls in the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally-designated American Viticultural Area, Hartmann said, adding, “I think that’s really unjust.” The prevailing winds, she said, already carry the smell of cannabis from a handful of existing operations up the Santa Ynez River and into town.

“The provisions of the ordinance strait-jacket the board,” Hartmann said.

Even as he voted in favor of SFS Farms, board Chairman Bob Nelson, who represents the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills, said he would have preferred a conditional use permit requirement for cannabis “across-the-board.”

“I’m not convinced that this project will not have an effect on Melville,” he said. “The risk is on the winemakers. I really sympathize with him. There’s a lot of unknowns out there … He’s struggling with the question mark of whether he will be able to continue in the future.”

Supervisor Das Williams, a chief architect of the cannabis ordinance along with Lavagnino, voted against any blanket requirements for conditional use permits last year, including a scaled-down proposal, proposed by Hartmann, that would have applied only to cannabis cultivation in the Sta. Rita Hills. Williams’ district includes the Carpinteria Valley, where neighborhoods must contend with the stench of cannabis from greenhouses with open roof vents.

On Tuesday, Williams defended his stance with a pointed reference to “people” (not the Melvilles, he said) “who are appealing every single project, less based on nuisance and more based on an ideological issue or a desire to fight the battle in every corner.”

 “The consequence is we don’t have a CUP in every case like this,” Williams said. “Some restraint in combat could lead to better policy.”

No coming to terms

In the course of Tuesday’s hearing, Ammann and Conlan gave the board different versions of why their efforts to reach a settlement had failed. Ammann said they had tried to negotiate an agreement in which the vintners would not be sued if their pesticides accidently drifted onto the field of marijuana at SFS Farms. He said representatives of SFS Farms had told the vintners they could be liable for between $50 million and $100 million if that happened.

No agreement was possible, Ammann said, because SFS Farms would not accept any terms that ran with the land and applied to future operators. It wasn’t clear to the vintners, he said, whether SFS Farms planned to run the operation or sell it to someone else.

“Entities can change very quickly,” Ammann said.

Conlan told the board that “Gainey wanted a complete absence of cannabis on this property.”

“The Melville side walked away from the table,” he said. “… We’re more than happy to coordinate on farming. We do believe that the landscaping mitigation would do a lot to address their concerns about terpenes and odor. SFS Farms is not interested in litigation.”

“Dessert” flavors

SFS Farms is owned by Drew Webb of Estes Park, Colo., and Jason Kiredjian of Manhattan Beach. It will be run by Justin El-Diwany, who is presently growing cannabis on three acres southwest of Buellton. On Tuesday, El-Diwany told the supervisors that the SFS Farms location was not suited to the “skunky”- smelling strains of cannabis.

“We’re committed to growing the citrusy and dessert-flavored strains,” he said.

SFS Farms is leasing the land for its operations from Bob Campbell, the owner of a 965-acre historic ranch at 4874 Hapgood Road. Campbell runs cattle and grows vegetables on the rest of his property.

Under the permit that was approved on Tuesday, the cannabis operation will be limited to two three-week harvests per year. The marijuana will be grown in an open field and not under hoops; upon harvesting, the plants will be transported to northern California for processing.

SFS Farms is by no means the largest cannabis operation in the county review pipeline. A 147-acre operation is proposed on Drum Canyon Road, northwest of Buellton; and there are four proposals for the Cuyama Valley that range from 105 acres to 200 acres in size.

Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.

Melinda Burns

Melinda Burns is a freelance reporter based in Santa Barbara, California.

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