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Flying high: Aerial pot surveillance weighed by county

County tables drones for cannabis monitor

Citing infringement of privacy and concern for staff who inform violators of infractions, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday postponed proceeding with plans for using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to monitor illegal cannabis grows.

It’s unknown when the drone issue will return to the board.

UAS, also known as drones, are already used substantially in the county, Supervisor Heidi Hall said.



“Drones serve as a wonderful process: for environmental restoration, rescue, river safety and Realtors,” said Hall. “But a number of egregious growers are getting away with (noncompliance with permits). I remain uncomfortable with using drones as part of our enforcement policy. The guidelines are reasonable, And I agree with concerns of privacy. It’s a tough issue, but I feel conflicted.”

Supervisors voted unanimously to table the issue until the Building Department and development staff return with a more detailed report.




Both Craig Griesbach, county building director, and Jeff Merriman, county code division program manager, made a pitch for drones as an effective tool to bring illegal growers into compliance. Merriman pointed out that the uses of drones would still respect residents’ privacy and would only be deployed to those maintaining illegal cannabis fields. He also noted that 32% of growers who are noncompliant could be added to the permitted cohort if persuaded to follow regulations.

“We’ll still rely on a citizen complaint-driven program,” said Merriman. “We’ll use drones as an option of last resort. We have all planned flights approved for use and only certified, trained personnel to assure we’re following all regulations in the use of drones.”

Griesbach and Merriman stressed the benefits of drones, including increased safety of staff who would avoid traveling to rural areas where there is no radio communication. They also explained drones are more cost effective than helicopter flyovers.

CONCERNS

Diana Gamzon, executive director of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance, said egregious farmers who lack permits are causing harm to sensitive watersheds through illegal water diversions, tearing up hillsides with heavy equipment and leaving a trail of evidence of criminal behavior and violence.

“We strongly encourage use of existing tools — citizen complaints will strongly increase awareness of the complaint process,” said Gamzon. “Will drone programs lead to enforceable abatement against egregious farmers? Issuing more citations or fines are not likely to have a significant effect. Nothing will change, other than having their plants forcibly cut down.”

The goal she emphasized ought to be a functioning permit system that creates opportunity to access a thriving cannabis system that can ensure a prosperous industry.

Barbara Bashall, executive director of the Nevada County Contractors’ Association, met with her organization on Monday and said its members did not have time to fully evaluate the value of drones. Some issues raised at the that meeting were the possibility of an invasion of privacy, and if illegal growers would be prompted to shoot drones out of the sky.

“If the process is given serious consideration, which I’m not advocating for, I’d advise having much stricter and clearer guidelines of how and when we’d use drones to abate illegal cannabis grows,” she said.

Teresa Dietrich, legal affairs chair for the Nevada County Association of Realtors, said she was not speaking on behalf of the organization but from her own perspective.

“My concern is personal since I do a lot of trail riding,” said Dietrich. “My horse is frightened by drones and he’s even terrified by large birds. I’m also concerned for other livestock.”

Supervisor Sue Hoek noted drones could be a first step in a pilot program to motivate egregious growers to comply with permitting.

“I’m leaning toward it, but privacy is really important,” she said.

Supervisor Ed Scofield said there was a lot more to consider, and advocated for waiting for a more detailed staff report before endorsing implementing the use of drones for this purpose.

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com


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