Nevada County group pushes for more restrictive outdoor pot grow ordinance | TheUnion.com

Nevada County group pushes for more restrictive outdoor pot grow ordinance

A local group called Tuesday for an "urgency ordinance" to establish more restrictive outdoor marijuana growing regulations in Nevada County — keeping pace, they say, with surrounding counties and helping to reduce water use during the statewide drought.

"There's already outdoor growing bans in Yuba County and other neighboring counties," said Don Bessee, executive director of the local chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "We have to react to it, otherwise we'll become the doughnut hole of having the most liberal laws — and we don't have enough water."

Local growers, however, said outright grow bans were "bad policy because they don't work and they don't protect the environment."

"By recriminalizing hundreds of small business owners and job creators, this policy would force important parts of the community back underground," said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association. "We need partnerships between local farmers and local government to solve problems."

Tuesday's proposal from SAM came in the form of a statement to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors read by SAM member Stephen De Sena during the public comment portion of the meeting. In response, board Chair Ed Scofield advised De Sena and his companions — Bessee and SAM members Fran Freedle and Lee French — to speak with Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal.

Royal was the one who first recommended the county's existing medical marijuana cultivation ordinance, which was unsuccessfully challenged last November by Measure S. Bessee said later that since Royal — who was listed as a member of SAM when the local chapter was created — was out of the office this week, the group would instead approach County Counsel Alison Barratt-Green to avoid wasting any time before the start of growing season in crafting some language to amend the existing ordinance.

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"We want to work with the sheriff and county counsel to find the sweet spot between a full outdoor ban and what we have now," said Bessee. "Now's the time."

Bessee cited a recent study about water use and outdoor pot grows (see accompanying sidebar). "We currently allow very large outdoor grows," he said. "I think those days are over."

Nevada City attorney Heather Burke, a board member of the Emerald Growers Association, said the growers agree that some reasonable steps are needed during the drought, such as a state Senate proposal to curb water runoff in farming.

Burke and association members will attend an agriculture committee hearing today in Sacramento to support the measure, titled Senate Bill 243, she said.

"Copying the Yuba County ban would be a waste of our county's limited resources, particularly because Nevada County has consistently demonstrated a more sensible approach to cannabis cultivation than our financially devastated neighbors in Yuba County," she said. "Yuba, as a result of their ban, now is quagmired with implementing an ordinance they can't afford to enforce and, at the same time, defending itself against multiple lawsuits, all at enormous expense to every taxpayer."

Bessee, meanwhile, said his group was forging ahead, despite activities around the state to craft a 2016 ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana use.

He said it was not clear if the proposed measure would supercede any local regulations.

"I haven't seen any language yet," he said. "I don't think a big industrialized plan would go over in California — you couldn't pass Colorado here."

Freedle cautioned that the "statewide initiative was not a done deal."

Patricia Smith, head of Americans for Safe Access-Nevada County and a member of the executive board of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the 2016 ballot measure, if passed by voters across California, would likely have language to preempt local ordinances.

"They haven't finalized it yet, but they'll either make it a statewide initiative, or, failing that, counties that do opt out won't get a dime of the tax revenue," she said.

Smith, who led the Measure S effort, said an outdoor grow ban in Nevada County would be "a very negative move."

"Their (county supervisors') solution to everything is to throw the baby out with the bath water, instead of finding reasonable regulations that address water use," she added.

Burke said the growers association will also be approaching Nevada County supervisors with its own proposal to protect county water supplies.

"Our county is in the unique position of already having a cultivation ordinance in place that seems to be functioning as intended," she said. "In that regard, the Emerald Growers Association will soon be meeting with our supervisors in an effort to move forward together to develop appropriate cultivation policies that will best protect Nevada County's precious natural resources."

It was not immediately clear if county officials would move ahead with SAM's request — or if they did so, how fast.

Barratt-Green said she had not heard from the group as of Tuesday afternoon; county Executive Officer Rick Haffey said he was not sure an amended draft ordinance could be produced quickly enough to be placed on the supervisor's public meeting agenda this month. "It won't be ready in two weeks," he said, referring to the next board meeting April 28.

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.