Nevada County officials, cannabis advocates dig into details of pot ordinance delay | TheUnion.com

Nevada County officials, cannabis advocates dig into details of pot ordinance delay

Nevada County supervisors knew a permanent cannabis ordinance would require some level of environmental review.

They just didn't know how much review until they'd settled on allowing commercial medicinal activity in the county, Supervisor Ed Scofield said.

It's that aspect of a new grow ordinance — allowing commercial medical pot — that's triggered the need for a full environmental impact report, which comes with an estimated $350,000 price tag. It's a process county officials said will delay the passage of the new ordinance until late this year or into next year.

"I know what it looks like," Scofield said, referring to accusations the board wants to postpone the ordinance's passage. "But I don't think there's anybody on that dais that wants to delay this."

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors has made no decision on who will perform the environmental review. Scofield said officials must first write the ordinance before the review can occur.

County staff initially hoped a draft ordinance would reach supervisors in March, revising that later to May. They still want a draft before supervisors in May, though it's implementation now is expected much later.

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Members of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance expressed concern over the delay during Tuesday's public comment period at the supervisors' meeting.

Diana Gamzon, the alliance's executive director, said local growers struggle to understand how they can operate during this year's grow season. She supports the environmental review, but noted people expected a new grow ordinance by now.

Mark Schaefer, on the alliance's executive board, told supervisors he had difficulty understanding why the county didn't use what he called a state exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act. He argued creating regulations now would lessen any environmental impact.

Schaefer questioned if supervisors feared using the state exemption because of staffing concerns, worries over the environment or concerns the county would become a go-to spot for growers.

"Well, we are the pot county," Schaefer said, urging supervisors to take action. "We've been the pot county for some time."

The act

A problem with the "exemption" cannabis advocates mentioned is that it's a deferral, not a true exemption, said Alison Barratt-Green, county counsel.

If the deferral is used, a local government could adopt a marijuana ordinance without an environmental review. Issuing discretionary permits to growers is a requirement in that scenario, Barratt-Green said.

However, the county could issue no permits until the California Environmental Quality Act's requirements were met, which in this case means an environmental report, she added.

That means the county could pass an ordinance without the review, but no grower could legally operate under the new ordinance because the review wasn't complete.

"All that means is if you don't do CEQA up front, then you have to do it when you're reviewing and getting ready to do the first part," Barratt-Green said. "It's like kicking the can down the road."

According to Barratt-Green, county officials needed supervisors to give them details about what the ordinance would include before any decision could occur on the environmental review. The existing ordinance, with its many limitations, was exempt from the act.

Including commercial medicinal grows in the ordinance ensured a higher level of environmental review, Scofield said.

"That is what triggered it," he added.

The cannabis alliance in a statement called the California Environmental Quality Act a complex body of law, adding it respects the cautious approach county officials are taking.

"However, we are exploring other options as well that would allow farmers to move from unregulated to regulated this summer," said Monica Senter, an executive board member of the alliance, in a statement. "We believe that there is a prudent path forward that would allow for limited commercial cultivation this summer under regulations that would protect the environment."

Senter is a member of The Union Editorial Board.

To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email ariquelmy@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239