Commission recommends more stringent permit process for cannabis cultivation

All cannabis cultivation projects in Santa Barbara County will face a more rigorous permitting process if supervisors back a recommendation the county Planning Commission made at a recent meeting.

Last year, the county Board of Supervisors directed staff to work with the Planning Commission on potential changes to the county’s existing cannabis cultivation ordinances to address issues that have popped up over the roughly two years that the regulations have been in place. 

During the commission’s fourth meeting on the topic, March 25, it unanimously approved a resolution that recommends all cannabis cultivation projects be required to obtain a conditional use permit. Previously, depending on their locations, many projects only required a land use permit. 

One of the more significant differences between the two permit types is that land use permits can be approved by the director of the county’s Planning and Development Department, while conditional use permits always go through the commission. Commission Chair Laura Bridley said switching to the latter could actually save time because most projects end up at the commission through the appeal process anyway. 

“Applicants are probably spending as much as they would trying to defend [a project] and get through the [land use permit] process,” Bridley said. “If it’s a [conditional use permit], you know what the process is.”

The other, more significant, difference is the amount of discretion the commission has to require specific project criteria through the conditional use permit. The commission has debated in previous meetings what it was and wasn’t allowed to require for projects with land use permits. 

Although there was unanimous support for this change, the commission spent hours debating whether it should include proposed changes to how cannabis odor is controlled in its resolution to the board. In a previous meeting, the commission asked for the board’s input on a potential change that would have required cannabis farmers to prevent odors from leaving their property. But the board didn’t respond clearly to this suggestion. 

Third District Commissioner John Parke suggested the commission move forward without recommending changes to how the county enforces odor control on projects. Instead, he said, the commission could make those determinations on a case-by-case basis when evaluating each conditional use permit. 

“The idea of a [conditional use permit] for all these activities will resolve most of the problems we are having,” Parke said. “It will certainly entitle us to impose the conditions that we think are appropriate.”

Other commissioners said they didn’t believe this single change was enough, given the many hours of public testimony they’ve heard about odor issues in previous meetings. After a lengthy debate on the issue, the commission agreed to recommending a change to the county’s odor control standard that essentially repeats language already outlined in the requirements for conditional use permits. 

“We’re repeating some language, but we’re underlining it at the same time,” 1st District Commissioner Michael Cooney said. 

Dan Klemann, deputy director of the county’s Long Range Planning Division, told the Sun that the resolution the commission crafted will be presented to the board at a future hearing for which the date hasn’t been determined. From there, supervisors can ask staff to draft ordinance amendment language based on the commission’s recommendations.

Klemann said there are still potential ordinance amendments the Planning Commission would like to discuss in the future, but there are no specific plans as to when that’ll take place. 

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