As the two Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies bounce in their truck along the rutted dirt roads so prevalent in this section of Big Oak Valley, they point to one mega-greenhouse after another dotting the hillsides.
A 96-passenger school bus next to one greenhouse “looks like a Matchbox (car),” commented Deputy Esteban Salinas, out conducting compliance checks for the county’s medical marijuana cultivation ordinance.
The massive structures are “all over the place down here,” Salinas said.
“People will call us about 40-foot greenhouses — and they aren’t lying,” added Salinas’ partner on the team, Deputy Jason Mackey.
Most of the greenhouses are on vacant parcels with no legal residences and are clearly in violation of the ordinance that was passed in May 2012. The ordinance is intended to regulate legal grows from a nuisance standpoint; it limits the size of grows depending on zoning, setbacks and plot size and imposes other restrictions, such as security fencing.
“We spent three days out here on complaints,” Mackey said. “One month later, we have more complaints on the same road. The sheer volume being cultivated defies the imagination. It’s surreal.”
The deputies pass by one expensive home with a greenhouse surrounded by a 10-foot fence that Mackey estimates cost $50,000. He points across the canyon to an easily visible marijuana grow, saying, “It’s hard to miss that deep emerald green in a field of tan.”
Many of the grows they’re seeing in this valley have no legal residence on the parcel, they said. At one grow, the grower was living in a treehouse when they showed up; that site now has new fencing and a modular house.
“We abated three parcels in just one section,” Mackey said. “Another grow just needed fencing and to record the parcel in his name — he’s now in compliance.”
The list goes on. One grow had 84 plants. Another sported five greenhouses but no residence.
The two deputies walk onto one vacant parcel after they spot a greenhouse surrounded by a well-designed camp that includes a vegetable garden, a shower and mini-kitchen with running water, a barbecue and a trimming area.
They find 80 plants in the greenhouse that are fairly small.
“They’ve already harvested one crop,” Mackey said. “You can see where they’ve been trimming.”
The deputies find a pile of medical marijuana recommendations on the kitchen’s counter, all of which are for Dana Point or San Clemente residents. According to Sgt. Guy Selleck, the head of the Narcotics Task Force, that’s not unusual.
“We are not keeping stats on this, but according to the ordinance team, 60 to 70 percent of the abatement citations they have issued are for individuals out of the area,” Selleck said.
Mackey and Salinas are the only two full-time compliance enforcement officers this season and began working full time on compliance checks in mid-June.
Mackey estimated 90 to 95 percent of the checks they do have at least one major violation — too large or inadequate fencing — that needs to be corrected.
The first stop they make on one recent afternoon is at two side-by-side residences on John Born Road that are within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.
“If we get a complaint, we will get the zoning info, then print out the map that shows a 1,000-foot radius around the bus stop,” Mackey said, adding that the information they use comes from the school district websites.
“It’s all public knowledge,” he said. “It’s easily accessible.”
Complaints – and abatements — tend to be sporadic, Mackey said .
“We might have four or five one week, none the next,” he said. “It all depends as well on the timing of the appeals.”
Complaints have been all across the board, Mackey said, although he expects more odor complaints as the season progresses.
The following week, Mackey and Salinas went out with Selleck and Lt. Alicia Milhous on a handful of abatements.
At one residence off West Road, the grow was being abated because there was no permission from the legal owner. According to the tenant, it was a matter of changing ownership from his grandmother — but the paperwork was not taken care of before the abatement order was signed.
The team ended up pulling 11 plants from a fenced-in area after kicking down the gate. Mackey advised the tenant, who seemed to be in a mild state of shock, to get the legal documents notarized and posted the following year.
At the next property, off Greenhorn Road, owner Chris Peasley reportedly bought the parcel to grow and moved a permitted trailer on site. Peasley appealed the citation but lost after the hearing officer determined the trailer did not qualify as a legal residence.
Two empty beds had already been stripped of their plants when the team arrived. The deputies pulled about 10 plants in a third bed, tossing them into the bed of a pickup truck to be dumped at the gated storage facility off Highway 49. After the plants mold and dry out, they will be buried at an undisclosed location.
“On several occasions when we have arrived to abate, the plants have been moved to another location or a portion of the plants have been moved,” Selleck said. His statistics show that more than 3,000 plants had been scheduled for abatement, but only 1,200 plants actually were eradicated.
Many growers not in compliance with ordinance
Last year, the enforcement team began writing ordinance violations in July, long after most growers had their plants in the ground.
But this season — even though the cultivation ordinance has been in place for more than a year — the deputies checking on complaints are on pace to far surpass the number of citations written last year.
As of November 2012, the team reportedly received 294 complaints and issued 85 notices to abate, seizing a total of 273 plants in civil and criminal abatements.
This year, the team had received 236 complaints and written 98 citations as of Aug. 26.
“I think people are under the belief that (receiving a violation notice) is not going to happen to them,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Tripp. “Maybe they’re just playing Russian roulette.”
Tripp said that given the publicity the cultivation ordinance had received last year, he was surprised by the number of violations being found.
“It’s a hot enough topic. They would have to have their head in the sand if they didn’t realize there was an ordinance,” he said.
Last year, Tripp said, growers were able to drag out the appeal process so that they were able to harvest their plants before their gardens were abated.
This year, he said, the team is seeing a lot of self-abatement.
“We go out and serve the violation, and people have five days to move or self-abate their marijuana,” Tripp said. “They’re moving them to other locations and try to hide it.”
A lot of growers opted to simply move their gardens out of the county altogether due to the ordinance, said Patricia Smith, founder of nonprofit patient advocacy group Grassroots Solutions and the local chapter of Americans for Safe Access.
Smith and the Nevada County ASA chapter are currently in the midst of gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to rewrite the ordinance. She said she has about 50 percent of the signatures needed at this point.
“I know of a lot of people that did move out of the county — they moved their grows to Yuba County, where the (cultivation) ordinance is less restrictive,” Smith said. “Some just moved altogether.
“Other people decided not to grow at all, that it wasn’t worth the hassle,” she said.
“Some have tried to comply and some just said to hell with it and crossed their fingers.”
Smith said she frequently gets calls from growers who have been told they are out of compliance with the ordinance.
“I get earfuls every day,” she said.
“Some people are livid, some are more complacent — but they’re all confused, because when they ask where they’re out of compliance, the (deputies) seem to be making stuff up as they go.”
From Tripp’s perspective, coming into compliance is simply a matter of educating yourself.
Growers “can get a copy of the ordinance so when they plant, they can follow the guidelines,” he said. “They’re very specific. For people not to do it, is irresponsible.
“They act shocked when we tell them they’re in violation, but they’re just hoping they’re not caught,” Tripp continued. “It’s a real slap in the face to their neighbors.”
Tripp said the whole intent of the ordinance was peaceful co-existence — that there would be a “happy medium” between the rights of the growers and the rights of their neighbors.
“Where people are in compliance, we let them do their thing,” he said. “I have faith that over time we will see more people come into compliance.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.