LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – Just over three weeks after the Board of Supervisors approved an interim urgency ordinance to govern the cultivation of medical marijuana, county officials are enforcing the document and abating large nuisance grows around Lake County.
Community Development Director Rick Coel said his department is working closely with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in carrying out the interim urgency marijuana cultivation ordinance that the Board of Supervisors passed at a special meeting on Monday, July 9.
He said he’s also preparing to give the supervisors an update next week, and anticipates asking that the measure be extended when it runs out on Aug. 23.
The urgency ordinance allows a maximum of six plants to be grown outdoors on a half acre or less, 12 plants with a 75-foot setback on parcels of half an acre to one acre, 18 plants and a 150-foot setback on parcels one to five acres in size, 36 plants and a minimum 150 foot setback on five- to 40-acre parcels, and a maximum of 48 plants on parcels 40 acres and larger.
Coel said that, as of Wednesday, the county had abated 19 properties as a result of the ordinance.
He said the properties were located around the county, in areas including Middletown, Nice, Kelseyville and Lucerne.
Of those 19 properties, Coel said 16 were parcels without a home on them and are therefore considered “vacant.” The interim urgency ordinance specifically prohibits marijuana cultivation on vacant parcels of any size.
Coel said 2,000 plants have been removed to date.
He said the enforcements are driven by complaints, and are not meant to harm legitimate medical marijuana patients.
The enforcements have carried on while, at the same time, a temporary restraining order action worked its way through the Lake County Superior Court.
Coel said the case – filed just days after the board passed the ordinance – didn’t stop the abatement process.
Last Friday, Judge David Herrick granted a limited temporary restraining order for the four plaintiffs – including former county medicinal marijuana cultivation advisory board member Don Merrill and three people who so far have remained anonymous.
Herrick said the order was limited to protecting the plaintiffs and was not a “global” ruling.
Attorney Joseph Elford, who represents the four plaintiffs in the case, had offered a solution at the Friday hearing – that the county could accept a temporary restraining order guaranteeing it would keep its word about leaving legitimate medical marijuana patients alone.
Senior Deputy County Counsel Bob Bridges said he didn’t have the power to accept that agreement, which he said ultimately would inhibit the county with moving forward on its efforts.
However, Bridges guaranteed to the court that it was the problem grows that were the county’s focus, not bona fide patients.
Elford faulted the county for not accepting his proposal, and dismissed their assurances.
“That’s all well and good but they won’t agree to it formally, and that’s the problem,” said Elford.
‘Egregious’ environmental issues
Coel said that during the abatement process “egregious” environmental problems have discovered – from raw human sewage dumped on the ground to unpermitted greenhouses and grading on steep properties, as well as significant amounts of nutrient rich topsoil that had been imported to some properties and which must be removed by winter.
“Some of these sites, we have not figured out just how we’re going to abate them,” said Coel, citing rugged terrain among the challenges.
He said they found plastic swimming pools being used for planter boxes. Abating the pools will be tricky – Coel said they can break up easily, leaving bits of plastic all over the properties.
They also discovered a 16-foot swimming pool filled with water that he said could pose a danger to wildlife or to children, and would be a mosquito breeding ground.
So far, there have been seven arrests as a result of abatement efforts under the ordinance, with Coel reporting that all seven subjects arrested were from outside of Lake County. Three of them were not U.S. citizens.
In addition to violating local laws, Coel said none of those arrested had the proper documentation to grow legally under California’s medical marijuana laws.
He credited the ordinance with empowering county staff to go into the grows quickly and conduct compliance reviews when they receive complaints.
“The number of complaints we’re receiving has increased dramatically since the board passed this ordinance,” he said.
Complaints are focusing on vacant sites where camping is taking place and sewage is being dumped, with gunfire, animal poaching, stormwater and grading violations, and wildland fire potential being among the chief concerns. In the process, Coel said they’re finding what he called “commercial” grow operations.
Coel said the county still doesn’t know the identity of the two John Does and the Jane Doe involved in the suit over the county’s ordinance, but as for Merrill, “There was never any intention to go after him,” because no complaints have been lodged against him and he only has a few more plants than the ordinance allows.
Likewise, Coel said the eradications are not targeting small growers taking care of their medical needs. “If they’re just taking care of their own needs, there’s no reason, we want to leave them alone.”
He maintained that ample time is being given to property owners where abatements are planned. Coel said they give 48 hours notice before removing plants, and in one recent case gave a grower with 80 plants – on a property size with a limit of 36 plants – two weeks before they took action. When they did, they found many of the plants in a seasonal creek bed, which is a violation of state law.
Coel said people can’t be allowed to come into Lake County and decimate the environment and properties.
“They don’t care who they impact, and those are our primary targets,” he said. “We owe that to our communities.”
Plans to seek an extension
The Lake County Zoning Ordinance, Coel said, doesn’t specifically allow either for medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivation. That’s a view that the county has maintained as the marijuana issue has intensified over the last several years.
The urgency ordinance, he added, is the only document in force that allows for reasonable amounts of cultivation.
Coel said the ordinance, which runs out Aug. 23, is effective and he plans to ask the supervisors to extend the ordinance.
“We believe that there’s still very strong grounds to extend it,” he said, adding the board could easily make the findings necessary to justify the extension.
The ordinance could be extended up to a maximum of 22 additional months, he said.
“The problems that we’ve been trying to mitigate under this ordinance are nowhere near fixed yet, so we need more time,” Coel said.
There are additional issues that have come up that the ordinance didn’t anticipate, including large grows in mobile home park spaces – which only have three-foot setbacks – and pot grows on the properties of apartments and other multifamily properties. Coel said he’ll ask the board to consider addressing those problems.
There is, however, still the issue of the preliminary injunction that Merrill and his three co-plaintiffs are seeking as the next step in their suit.
At the temporary restraining order hearing last week, Judge Herrick set the preliminary injunction hearing for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15.
Whatever injunctive relief is offered, Elford said his clients’ goal is for a ruling that will encompass not them but other people who are “similarly situated.”
Elford said they’re looking for an explanation of what the law is, with a view to having the law apply the same to everyone.
That Aug. 15 hearing date could end up changing; Elford suggested it could even be canceled if the county is willing to change the ordinance in a way that’s palatable to his clients.
To avoid continued litigation, Elford said the county could make its ordinance match California law.
He said that includes allowing for a greater number of plants to be cultivated on larger parcels and also allowing qualified patients to grow what is necessary for their personal medical use, without the limits the ordinance imposes.
“The problem is the details of such an agreement,” Elford said, adding, “I think both sides appreciate the difficulty there.”
Email Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org .