Transplants a growing problem in Nevada County marijuana cultivation? (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

Transplants a growing problem in Nevada County marijuana cultivation? (VIDEO)

All across California, communities are looking ahead to 2016 and the anticipated legalization of recreational marijuana.

And Nevada County — which has a booming marijuana industry and which already has a medical marijuana cultivation ordinance — is no exception, as growers discuss marketing marijuana appellations amid a possible shift to even stricter restrictions of grows.

When neighboring Yuba County voted to ban outdoor grows early this year, local government and law enforcement officials warned of a possible influx of growers across the county borders.

"There are a lot of people moving into the county because of limitations in surrounding counties," Nevada County Sheriff's Lt. Bill Smethers said. "They are hearing this is an open-grow county."

“There’s a philosophy that Nevada County is an open county. We’re seeing a tremendous increase of people coming from other parts of the state where it is strongly regulated or where they’ve banned outdoor grows. …”Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal

According to Smethers, there are speculators scooping up property throughout Northern California and leasing it to growers, adding they can lease it out for $20,000 to $30,000 for the season.

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"It's becoming a real headache," he said.

The deputies on the Nevada County Sheriff's Narcotics Task Force, who are tasked — along with patrol officers — with conducting the complaint-driven compliance checks — echoed that narrative, saying that more stringent regulations in Butte and Yuba counties have caused an influx of growers.

"We're seeing a lot of transplants," said Sheriff's Sgt. Justin Martin, adding that his preference would be to see a ban on outdoor grows, a faster appeals process, and the ability to automatically "abate" or cut down a marijuana grow if it is egregiously in violation of the county's ordinance.

"One thing we've seen (is that) the number of complaints have gone up substantially," Sheriff Keith Royal said. "There's a philosophy that Nevada County is an open county. We're seeing a tremendous increase of people coming from other parts of the state where it is strongly regulated or where they've banned outdoor grows. They see Nevada County as open, come on up and grow … When we ask were they're from, it's the valley, the Bay Area, they're buying second properties so they can grow. It's a bigger problem than we anticipated."

Several medical marijuana activists in the county have disputed that scenario, telling The Union most growers in Yuba County opted to stay put this year and gamble that they would escape notice.

"Of course there are lots of growers in Nevada County, but they are not moving here from Yuba County," said medical marijuana attorney Heather Burke. "Folks who bought property in Yuba to grow cannabis are growing anyway, even in spite of the ban. And that fact proves point-blank that bans just don't work."

[Are there more “trimmigrants’ in Nevada County this year? VOTE at our Poll here.]

There is no way to accurately or completely track — beyond anecdotal evidence — whether growers are coming from out of the county to buy or lease land. When the Sheriff's Office began stepping up compliance checks in September, Smethers said the plan was to track the growers who were at the sites, if an owner or a renter was growing and from where they came.

That tracking happened only sporadically, however, Smethers said this week; out of 59 checks on which tracking was done from the beginning of October, he said 17 growers reported they were from out of the area.

This perceived increase in marijuana growers coming from out of the county is driving a movement toward a more restrictive cultivation ordinance because, Royal says, legalizing recreational marijuana "would further exacerbate what's happening here."

According to Royal, several county supervisors have expressed an interest in revisiting the issue, in "more acutely regulating what's occurring."

"At this point, I can't tell you what we're going to do or where we'll be," he said. "In the early part of next year we'll explore what actions may be pursued … In my personal opinion, it's out of control."

[Interactive map] — Breaking down how many marijuana nuisance complaints have been filed this year, and where (Story continues below):

Compliance costs shifted back to growers

Beyond the rhetoric, has there been much change to the marijuana-growing scene since the cultivation ordinance was put into place in late 2012.

According to the sheriff's office, complaints dropped nearly 40 percent between the first full year of the ordinance and the second — from 379 in 2013, to 231 in 2014. This year saw a slight increase over last year, with 265 complaints recorded.

Three years in, the deputies who handle conducting compliance checks say they are not seeing growers making an effort to be in compliance with the ordinance.

"I have yet to go to a garden this season that has been in compliance with our ordinance," Martin said. "There's always at least one violation."

Deputy Jason Spillner concurred, saying, "I haven't seen one. The volume we see now is worse than 2013, with (growers using) greenhouses and terracing."

One difference? Location.

"The bigger grows used to be on the (San Juan) Ridge," Martin said. "Now, there are monster grows off Chalk Bluff, and Highway 20, at higher elevations but with great sun exposure, off Greenhorn and You Bet — it's everywhere."

One area that has become a magnet for growers is Big Oak Valley, to the point where some deputies have nicknamed the area "Big Dope Valley."

There has been a substantial drop in the number of appeals filed with the county — and a corresponding increase in the number of grows that were self-abated, either by cutting plants or moving them. Only 29 appeals were filed this year, compared to 54 the year before. Conversely, 70 growers self-abated this year, a marked jump from 40 in 2014.

The decrease in appeals could be due to the county's new approach in putting the financial responsibility back on the grower, should they lose their appeal.

The deputies checking complaints now track their time, their mileage, and the time spent on inspections, warrants and appeals, so that the county can recoup its costs.

And that process — new this year — was added to the letters that deputies are posting and handing out, Smethers said.

"We explained to them that they could be billed … that they could be responsible as far as reimbursing us for our time, and the time for county counsel," he said. "So a lot of people asked if abatement would solve the problem."

What constitutes an abatement became somewhat problematic this year, from the perspective of law enforcement.

"They're just moving their plants," Martin commented, pointing to one site where, he says, the grower was cited and he moved his plants to the property he owned below that. According to Martin, the narcotics task force then received a complaint about the new location.

In late August, Martin said, the task force cited a 693-plant grow off Deadmans Flat because there was no residence or well. The grower appealed, and they were then told he self-abated and was withdrawing his appeal. When they flew over, the plants were gone, not cut down.

"They're just gambling they won't be inspected, and the back-up plan is to move (the plants) to another location," Spillner said.

Attorney Heather Burke says there is nothing in the ordinance that prohibits a grower from moving plants, rather than cutting them down, in order to abate a nuisance.

"Of course growers can legally move their plants to come into compliance with the local ordinance," she said. "If a grower gets an ordinance citation, the ordinance expressly allows them to 'self-abate,' which means they can either come into compliance, move the plants elsewhere, or kill the plants."

Smethers, for one, is not convinced — if not regarding the legality, than the practical reasons for moving plants.

"People can up and move plants to another location, so we are chasing our tails," he said. "The question I have is, are they just hiding their plants and moving them to another site that is (out of compliance)? It's not illegal to move plants — but are they just doing it to hide from law enforcement?"

After all, he said, if the new site was in compliance, why wouldn't they have grown there in the first place?

"We hear about it on a daily basis," he said. "People rent U-Hauls and move their plants around."

In Smethers' view, growers just need to abide by the ordinance.

"If they're just staying one step ahead of the cops, to me, it's because they're doing something illegal," he said.

The solution?

"It would be much easier for us if we had a no outdoor grow county."

Medical marijuana advocates, of course, have a far different solution in mind.

"While this currently presents somewhat of a quagmire for law enforcement, it highlights the county's need to begin meaningful conversations with local stakeholders, such as cultivators, environmental groups, and the Sheriff, to work together to create a common-sense ordinance that encourages compliance," Burke said.

Looking ahead, Burke said, everyone should be working together to "tax and regulate this booming industry, so our entire county can benefit."

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

More marijuana coverage

—Our publisher Jim Hemig takes a literally blind trip to an illegal pot grow.

—California pot regulations will take time to shake out

—Nevada County pot cultivation case challenged on constitutionality issue

—Yuba County will appeal decision revoking pot penalty

BY THE NUMBERS

2013:

— 379 complaints filed as of Oct. 1

— Approximately 113 compliance checks completed with citations written as of Oct. 1

— Deputies abated 19 gardens through August

— 39 appeals filed with the Board of Supervisors through August

2014:

— 231 complaints filed as of Oct. 29.

— Approximately 96 compliance checks completed with citations written as of Oct. 29

— Deputies abated nine gardens, for a total of 241 plants by obtaining abatement warrants

— 40 gardens self and/or owner abated

— 54 appeals filed with the Board of Supervisors as of Oct. 20

2015:

— 265 complaints filed as of Oct. 27.

— Approximately 126 compliance checks completed with 72 citations written

— Deputies abated 10 gardens, for a total of 1,104 plants by obtaining abatement warrants

— 70 gardens self and/or owner abated

— 29 appeals filed with the Board of Supervisors as of Oct. 6

— 14 compliance checks found marijuana grows on parcels with no legal residence

— 13 compliance checks found marijuana grows that are within 1,000 feet of a school or school bus stop

— 38 rural zoned parcel owners/tenants have been cited for gardens being over the allotted square footage per the ordinance

— 21 residential zoned parcel owners/tenants have been cited for gardens being over the allotted square footage per the ordinance

— 61 gardens have been cited for fencing that was not up to code

— 46 gardens have been cited for fencing that was not secured

Source: Nevada County Sheriff’s Office