Glut of pot complaints clogs system
October 9, 2013
When Ken Roberts (not his real name) bought his modest home off Rough and Ready Highway 10 years ago, it was because he loved the peaceful, friendly neighborhood.
But today, the elderly widower — who is dying of cancer — says he couldn't even sit out on his deck to enjoy the summertime air, thanks to the rank odor from nearby marijuana grows.
"What kind of community do you want to live in?" he asked.
"I'm not against anyone smoking pot, but it's taking down the community," Roberts continued, citing safety concerns with criminal elements. "The only thing I can say is the people here are leaving themselves wide open to the same thing that happened during Prohibition. Read history."
“People have an expectation we immediately jump on complaints
— but the reality is, we have so many, we have to prioritize them.”
Nevada County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Tripp
Roberts said the smell, which wafts into his home depending on the breeze, has woken him up because it's "so horrendous — like a bunch of skunks walked through my house and let loose."
One neighbor already has moved, Roberts said, adding that another is considering doing so.
"No one's enforcing (the ordinance), so what good is it?" said the former neighbor. "It really is an ugly thing. It's not about treatment. It's about drug deals."
Roberts has filed two complaints with the Nevada County Sheriff's Narcotics Task Force because he believes his neighbors are in violation of the county medical marijuana cultivation ordinance.
That was back in early September. As of Friday, the two Sheriff's deputies tasked with responding to complaints have not visited his street.
And they probably aren't likely to before the growing season is over.
According to Narcotics Task Force spokesman Sgt. Guy Selleck, the team had completed 113 compliance checks from May up to Oct. 1 — while 325 complaints had been logged for 2013.
"People have an expectation we immediately jump on complaints — but the reality is, we have so many, we have to prioritize them," said Sheriff's Lt. Steve Tripp. "They're logged, and the guys try to maximize their efforts by hitting areas where there are multiple complaints. It's not first come, first served."
According to Tripp, the team is also still dealing with a log jam of complaints left over from last year.
"There's really no — unfortunately — there's no method to our madness," he said. "There's absolutely no way we'll be able to get to all the complaints."
Last season, the compliance team included members of the Narcotics Task Force. But this year, the two-man team has soldiered through the season essentially alone.
"It came down to staffing," Tripp said. "We didn't want to deplete patrol. The Sheriff's Office as a whole is still down four or five deputies. "That impacts what we can put into our specialized units," he said. "The bottom line is not that marijuana complaints are unimportant — but we can't compromise public safety."
Process can be cumbersome
The two deputies conducting compliance checks — Esteban Salinas and Jason Mackey — end up traveling all across the county to address complaints, which affects the rate of response.
"We're lucky to get four to six done in a day," Mackey said. "Some days we can do seven or eight a day … If it's in a remote location, we might only hit three or four — it consumes the entire day."
If violations are found, the property owner receives a notice to abate that explains the specific violations.
The grower has five calendar days from the serving of the notice to file an appeal. If the grower does file an appeal, a hearing date is supposed to be filed not less than five days or no more than 30 days from the date the request was filed.
After the hearing, it can take about a week for the hearing officer to make a decision and mail that decision to the grower; if the appeal was denied, then the plants will be abated.
According to Julie Patterson Hunter, deputy clerk of the Board of Supervisors, more appeals were filed this year regarding whether there was a legally permitted residence on the property.
One of those appeals was granted, she said. In that case, Mackey said, the grower had an RV on site, as well as a platform on posts. He did have an expired building permit and renewed it.
"Nothing had been done since then," Mackey said, "He went in and paid his fees and got a temporary occupancy permit."
According to Mackey, county counsel currently is trying to codify exactly what constitutes a legal residence in relation to the ordinance.
"We've received a lot of questions about the permit process and how to establish a legal residence on a property," said Nevada County Interim Building Director Daniel Chatigny. "In one of those cases, there was an open permit, and the owner applied for an extension. We're not seeing a lot of applications, but we have seen a lot of questions."
Chatigny noted that the building permit process is time-consuming and expensive, adding, "It's not a quick and easy fix."
The county has limits on putting a temporary structure on a site and never following through, he said.
On Sept. 19, two separate growers on Perimeter Road who had filed appeals had their hearing in front of hearing officer Vic Ferrera.
Both had violations that centered around not having a legally permitted residence on the property, and both claimed to be in the middle of the permit process.
The first man, Daniel Hendricks, had a marijuana garden well in excess of the legally allowable grow on a parcel of between 10-20 acres, as well as having no residence.
He had three separate growing areas with a total of 98 plants, Salinas testified. There was cola drying in a semi-finished shed, and a man on site identified himself as being there to guard the property. A generator was being used to power fans and a television.
Hendricks told Ferrera he and another renter both had recommendations and said he bought the property with the intent of growing marijuana. He said he was unaware he needed a residence on the parcel and said he had began trying to get in compliance. He told Ferrera he reduced the size of the grow and consolidated his plants and has gotten permits for a well and a perk and mantle test.
"My intention in filing the appeal was to provide myself with time to get in compliance," he said. "I'm eager to do so."
He added that he purchased the property five years ago and lives in Arcata.
The second appeal was filed by Gerald and Steve Bullis, who had only a fifth wheel on their property with 40 plants on site.
Mackey testified that the grow was too large and was not fenced or gated.
There were a multitude of violations, Mackey said, acknowledging that the Bullises were only cited for not having a permitted residence.
"I have a bunch of paperwork started for a residence," Steve Bullis said. "Everything's really close to getting a permit. I want to be in compliance … I didn't know you couldn't stay in the fifth wheel."
Ferrera ended up denying both appeals, and the grows were abated last week.
"They didn't take the opportunity (between the notice and the hearing) to get into compliance," Mackey said. "If we go back out and they are compliant, we walk away."
Deputies: Delays can prove advantageous
Because there reportedly have not been enough hearing officers handling the appeals, some hearings have been postponed a number of times.
According to Mackey, one grower the team cited at the end of June had his appeal postponed for 90 days; he then withdrew his appeal, even though he had not come into compliance on the violations.
"A lot of people are filing appeals, with the larger grows, to get more time to harvest — and then they withdraw the appeal or don't show up," Mackey said.
On Thursday, Salinas and Mackey went to abate three grows, several of which belonged to growers who had unsuccessfully appealed citations.
At the first, on Burjer Road, the team had originally found 90 plants with a greenhouse. Now the field stood empty with just two plants in pots.
At the second site, on Lombardi Road, the grower, who had posted a sign advertising Sacramento-based MC Health & Wellness, had left just 10 plants behind from what reportedly has been a well-tended grow of 86 plants.
"This guy appealed but withdrew the appeal," Salinas said. "That's usually because they've already harvested."
At the third site, on Big Oak Drive, there had been 60 plants, Salinas said.
"The property owner called me about two or three weeks ago and said he had abated all the plants," he said as he drove to the steep hillside grow site.
But as Mackey surveyed the decimated site with just one plant remaining, he said it was clear the plants had been harvested much more recently than that, possibly only a few days earlier, given the color of the stalks and the slightly damp soil surrounding the root balls.
According to Tripp, Nevada County is seeing more growers striving to come into compliance.
"We are starting to see, after we post, people are getting into compliance," he said. "When we go back, we turn and walk away and say thank you very much."
But he acknowledged that although compliance with the marijuana cultivation ordinance might be moving in the right direction, the number of complaints shows it remains an "overwhelming" problem.
And the sluggish response time continues to frustrate county residents like Roberts, who say they're sick of not being able to enjoy their property from mid-July through October.
"I don't know what the county supervisors are thinking, I really don't," he said. "It's beyond me."
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.
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