Task of enforcing outdoor ban leaves Nevada County Sheriff’s Office in the weeds | TheUnion.com

Task of enforcing outdoor ban leaves Nevada County Sheriff’s Office in the weeds

These marijuana greenhouses were spotted during a 2016 overflight by the Nevada County Sheriff's Office.
Submitted photo |

Every year since the county first enacted a marijuana cultivation ordinance, Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies have complained that few growers have sought to come into compliance — and that perception hasn’t changed.

“Nobody wants to follow the ordinance,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Smethers, who oversees the Narcotics Task Force. “They don’t care.

“All we’re doing is asking people to comply with the ordinance,” Smethers said. “We’re willing to work with people and educate them. But you’ve got people thumbing their nose at the county.”

Last year, there were allegations that growers were moving into Nevada County because of limitations in surrounding counties; that perceived increase in part drove the more restrictive cultivation ordinance put in place in January of this year.

The ban on outdoor grows — and the 12-plant indoor limit — theoretically is going to make enforcement easier because it is clear that growing outside is forbidden.

But Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Smethers, who oversees the Narcotics Task Force, said his deputies aren’t seeing any increased compliance. And he suggested there might be active efforts to derail enforcement efforts.

“We’ve heard rumors of (growers) inundating the county with marijuana, to prove that NCSO can’t enforce the ordinance,” he said.

Smethers maintained that enforcement was going to be a priority for his office, adding that they started enforcement earlier this season and are using a fixed-wing small plane more often because it is much cheaper — $200 an hour versus $900 an hour for helicopters.

Last week, the Narcotics Task Force served several criminal warrants based on over-flights.

In the 24000 block of Snow Tent Road, the task force reportedly found 578 plants on a parcel with a greenhouse grow and an outdoor grow. At an adjoining site, near Tyler Foote Crossing and Cruzon Grade roads, they found 205 plants; neither parcel had a legal residence.

According to Smethers, a man onsite was caretaking for two separate property owners in exchange for a place to grow; there were 18 recommendations from a collective.

“We walked away from (nearly) 800 plants,” Smethers said. “But we cited them.”

At a third grow in the 14000 block of Owl Creek Road, off Jones Bar Road, deputies reportedly found 250 plants covered by four recommendations, and evidence of a dismantled butane honey oil lab and old butane canisters. The property owner was cited, the lab was seized, and charges were forwarded to the District Attorney’s office, Smethers said.

On Friday, the Sheriff’s Office offered ridealongs in the plane it is using for over-flights to a reporter from The Union, Supervisor Dan Miller, and a member of county counsel’s staff.

Grows were spotted all over during an hour-long flight that covered Penn Valley and Lake Wildwood, up through the San Juan Ridge area, to Scotts Flat Lake and through the Greenhorn canyon and Rollins Lake. Perhaps because it is so early in the season, one big difference noted from a 2012 over-flight was a greater number of hoop houses and greenhouses.

Miller, who said it was the first time he had gone on an over-flight, said the sight of so many grows made him “almost speechless.”

“They’re so visible, and so bold,” he commented. “I realized .. what a big task it’s going to be if (Measure W) passes. Their work is cut out for them.”

Miller said he believed enforcement needed to be consistent, adding, “I walked away shaking my head.”

On a recent ridealong, Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Morgan was kept busy on a handful of complaints during an overtime shift. Of the three he handled that morning, two required him to post notices on locked gates.

Morgan estimated he runs into locked gates about 90 percent of the time. According to Smethers, deputies will post a request for contact. If they get no response, the Sheriff’s office will eventually conduct a flyover of the property.

At the third compliance check, at a small farm off Greenhorn Road, the complaint cited 40 to 50 plants behind a residence. The owners of the property said they had grown the year before, and took Morgan to see the unused grow site. They told him they had no plans to grow this year because of the outdoor ban.

Morgan did discover several small plants in pots stashed in a fenced garden to the side of the house, and the owners chose to “self-abate,” ripping the plants out and handing them to the deputy to destroy.

“We got a lot of complaints at the beginning of the year,” Smethers said. “People grew there before so the neighbors want to get at the top of the list. We didn’t start inspecting until the end of March. We gave it some time, due to the weather. We’re just seeing plants going in. Greenhouses are the big thing; we see them popping up everywhere.”

According to Smethers, his deputies are seeing so many grows they could conduct compliance checks 24-7 all year long. The citations now are much quicker to issue, he said, because deputies don’t have to spend as much time measuring grows — they just have count the 12 legal plants.

Abatements, Smethers said, will be to get any grows into compliance, to 12 plants indoors and no outdoor plants.

“We’re not trying to be heavy-handed,” he said.

“Some growers are complying,” Smethers added. “We’ve had a lot of people saying they had no idea (there was an outdoor ban). They thought it went into effect after the election (in June) … It’s frustrating. The growers that come out and say they want to work with us, a lot of them aren’t.”

Smethers said the Sheriff’s office is hoping to simplify the process even further, possibly streamlining and shortening the appeal and abatement process.

“Doing away with outdoor grows is not going to affect the economy,” Smethers said. “This county has been around a long time. It’s not going to destroy Nevada County — it will be a better quality of life, for people to enjoy the community.”

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email lkellar@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

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