Some in the wine industry continue to oppose cannabis in the Santa Ynez Valley

The same week the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved the largest cannabis project to come before the board so far, a coalition of residents pushing back on the new industry sued the county over its March approval of a different farm.

click to enlarge Some in the wine industry continue  to oppose cannabis in the Santa Ynez Valley
HARVESTING: Busy Bee’s Organics grows 22 acres of cannabis on its farm near Buellton, which is at the center of a lawsuit filed against the county.

During its April 21 meeting, supervisors approved plans for a 50-acre cannabis farm in the Santa Rita Hills on a tight 3-2 vote, with 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann and 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam voting against the project. Adam acknowledged this rare circumstance where he, a staunch conservative, was on the same side as some environmentalists who opposed the project.

“I’m sitting with the strangest bedfellows … so, maybe hell has frozen over, I’m not sure,” Adam said. 

This is the second farm in the Santa Ynez Valley supervisors have approved in recent months. On March 17, supervisors—absent Adam, who didn’t attend the meeting—unanimously approved plans for Busy Bee’s Organics, which became the first project in the valley the board approved. 

The Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis sued the county and the board over this decision on April 23. According to the petition, the group claims the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act by approving the project based on an insufficient programmatic environmental impact review (PEIR). The county completed this review in 2017 prior to passing the cannabis ordinance in February 2018. 

In the lawsuit, the group claims that in the time since the board approved the ordinance, new environmental issues involving the cannabis industry have appeared that weren’t examined in the review. 

“Because the board was presented with substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that changed circumstances and new information arising after the PEIR’s certification may result in new and substantially more severe environmental impacts, the board’s finding was in error, and subsequent environmental review is required,” the lawsuit states.

Since the county began accepting applications for cannabis projects, the Santa Ynez Valley has emerged as one of the areas with the most proposals. Opponents of the cannabis industry claim that this sort of clustering isn’t examined in the PEIR, although county staff has said otherwise on numerous occasions.

In a statement to the Sun, attorney Susan Petrovich, who represents Busy Bee’s Organics, said the team behind the project is disappointed to see this lawsuit filed against the farm, which 1st District Supervisor Das Williams referred to as an example for others to follow during the board’s March 17 meeting.

“More than 10 local and state agencies have reviewed and approved the project and found it to meet or exceed their rigorous requirements,” Petrovich said in the statement. “This is an end run around the long since expired statute of limitations to challenge the county’s cannabis laws.”

The coalition behind this lawsuit has filed numerous appeals over other cannabis farms in the valley, including the Santa Barbara West Coast Farms project the Board of Supervisors approved during its April 21 meeting.

The project description includes plans to grow 46 acres of cannabis, along with a 4-acre nursery, and the construction of two 3,000-square-foot buildings where the plants will be processed. The project site is located off Highway 246 about 1 mile west of Buellton. 

It’s across the street from Blair Pence’s property, Pence Vineyards. According to Secretary of State filing documents, Pence is the CEO of the coalition. He and two other board members filed paperwork with the state to register the organization on May 6, 2019, which is the same day that Pence appealed the county Planning and Development Department’s decision to approve a land use permit for the Santa Barbara West Coast Farms project. 

Pence and some other vintners and cannabis opponents in the valley say they’re concerned that organic compounds released from the plants—called terpenes—could taint the taste of the wine. A cannabis farm applicant financed a study last year that suggests this isn’t likely, but the county is looking into funding its own study to examine the issue.

Because of the strict testing cannabis undergoes to ensure it’s pesticide-free, vintners have also complained that they could be held liable if the pesticide they spray on their grapes drifts over to a nearby cannabis farm and ruins the plants. But cannabis farmers point out that it’s illegal for pesticides to drift to any neighboring farms, not just when it’s cannabis.

Some vintners have also raised concerns about the odor from cannabis farms affecting guests’ experiences tasting wine at their wineries, including Al Wager, who is the vice president of vineyards for Foley Family Wines.

“Our wineries’ reputations have been built on our wines and tasting room experience—with the proliferation of cannabis odors near tasting rooms along Highway 246, we expect visitors will not be able to taste our wines and will not choose Santa Barbara County for wine tasting,” Wagner said in a written public comment to the board for its April 21 meeting.

While supervisors approved the Busy Bee’s Organics project unanimously, the debate over West Coast Farms was far more contentious. Its location within the Santa Rita Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) was a major concern for Hartmann and Adam. An AVA is a designated grape-growing region with unique features that distinguish it from surrounding areas.

Hartmann—whose district includes the valley—said she is concerned about a high number of cannabis projects proposed in and near the AVA hurting the local wine industry. 

“It’s a misappropriation of the Santa Rita Hills brand, and I think it’s damaging to the reputation of an industry that has been working for decades to create a caché with the Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Rita Hills area,” Hartmann said.

In response to a request from Hartmann, county planner Kathryn Lehr told the board that the county has received applications that total up to about 625 acres of cannabis cultivation in the AVA, which covers more than 33,000 acres. 

Attorney Larry Conlan, who represented West Coast Farms at the meeting, said this concern over clustering isn’t a valid reason to deny the project a permit, as it’s only the second project in the Santa Ynez Valley to appear before the board. Also, he said, the county looked at this clustering issue in a programmatic environmental impact review that the coalition is contesting in its lawsuit.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who is one of the strongest cannabis proponents on the board, said the wine industry doesn’t have a monopoly on land use decisions in the valley. He said that people opposed to the cannabis industry continue to point to proposed locations as incompatible, which leaves farmers without many options where they wouldn’t receive criticism. 

“It’s just this continual attempt to block wherever these folks want to go,” Lavagnino said. “I guess we go back out into the Los Padres National Forest again and do it illegally, because that’s where you’re going to force these guys to go.”

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at [email protected].

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