Court rejects request to revisit cannabis ordinance environmental impacts

A recent ruling in favor of a Santa Ynez Valley cannabis grow and Santa Barbara County rejected claims that the project is environmentally incompatible with neighboring farms, a decision that could foreshadow outcomes of similar lawsuits filed by the Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis.

On May 25, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Anderle denied a petition for a writ of mandate filed by the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, which argued that the county’s approval of a Busy Bee’s Organics cannabis farm violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), state planning and zoning laws, and the Williamson Act, a state law that aims to preserve California’s agricultural lands. Anderle denied those claims and the coalition’s request to direct the county to conduct a new environmental review regarding cannabis operations. 

“I think Judge Anderle’s clear-eyed analysis of this particular lawsuit will be kryptonite for the coalition’s other CEQA lawsuits,” Busy Bee’s co-owner Sara Rotman wrote in a statement to the Sun. “It’s clear that they are bringing these lawsuits simply to cause delays and to force project applicants and the county to suffer crippling financial costs. That’s unfortunate, and I wish the coalition wouldn’t abuse the legal system in that way.”

click to enlarge Court rejects request to revisit cannabis ordinance environmental impacts
CANNABIS IN COURT : Busy Bee’s Organics grows 22 acres of cannabis on its farm near Buellton, which is at the center of a lawsuit over environmental impacts.

Busy Bee’s 62-acre farm is located on Highway 246 just west of Buellton. In May 2019, the county Planning and Development Department approved plans for several acres of cannabis cultivation on the site, a decision that was appealed to the Planning Commission by a neighboring farmer. The Planning Commission debated the project over the course of two meetings before unanimously approving it in November 2019. 

The Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a group of residents that has pushed back on numerous local cannabis projects and called for stricter regulations in the local industry, appealed the commission’s decision to the county Board of Supervisors. The board unanimously approved plans for the project—22 acres of cannabis cultivation, including 2,700 square feet of mixed-light and nursery cultivation within an existing greenhouse and 5 acres under hoop structures—in March 2020. A month later the coalition took its fight to court.  

In the petition, the coalition argues that the county’s initial ordinance regulating commercial cannabis land uses, adopted in 2018, and its Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for the ordinance fail to address various environmental issues related to cannabis grows.

“This is not so,” Judge Anderle wrote in his ruling. “Petitioner simply disagrees with the conclusion in the PEIR that there are no conflicts.” 

Chief among the coalition’s concerns are terpenes—organic compounds released by marijuana plants—that it says could taint the taste of the wine grapes produced at neighboring vineyards. Because of the strict testing cannabis undergoes to ensure it’s pesticide-free, the coalition also complains that other farmers could be held liable if the pesticide they spray on their crops drifts over to a nearby cannabis farm and ruins the plants.

But Judge Anderle said those issues were discussed at length before the county approved its cannabis ordinance. He said any evidence of the effect of terpenes on other crops is “speculative,” and deemed it unrelated to the Busy Bee’s project. Pesticide drift, he said, has also proven to be a non-issue in this case. 

“Petitioner cites no evidence that the project exacerbates the adverse environmental impacts of pesticides,” Anderle wrote. “To the contrary, petitioner’s allegation is that the project will lead to more targeted and/or less toxic pesticide application by other agricultural operations.”

Anderle also went on to dismiss the coalition’s argument that cannabis cultivation isn’t an agricultural use in compliance with the Williamson Act or the project’s land use zoning. The plot of land that holds Busy Bee’s Organics is under a Williamson Act easement, which gives the property owners tax breaks so long as the designated land is being used for agricultural purposes. Although the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis argued that cannabis cultivation is not recognized as an agricultural use, Anderle ruled that previous case law states otherwise. Anderle concluded that many of the coalition’s claims had little to do with the Busy Bee’s Organics project, and instead were directed at the county’s cannabis ordinances. If the coalition and its members opposed the county’s cannabis ordinance and PEIR, he wrote, they should have appealed its approval years ago. 

“I’m very happy that Judge Anderle saw this case the same way we did,” Rotman said. “He stated unequivocally that the lawsuit lacked any meaningful connection to our project and was, instead, the coalition trying to take a second bite at the apple after they failed to challenge the county cannabis ordinance in a timely fashion back in 2018. That’s a grave misuse of CEQA and will continue to be a failing strategy for anti-cannabis activists like Marc Chytilo and Blair Pence.”

Chytillo and Pence, attorney for and president of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis respectively, are working together on at least two other similar lawsuits related to CEQA and local cannabis operations proposed by Castlerock Family Farms and West Coast Farms. They don’t intend to drop those efforts because of this ruling, according to Pence, and he also said it’s not the coalition’s goal to make it financially difficult for cannabis cultivators to operate. 

“Absolutely not,” Pence wrote in a statement to the Sun. “We have simply been attempting to get Busy Bee to live up to their own motto of being a ‘great neighbor.’ So far that has not happened. We are holding the cannabis growers and our local government accountable to treat their community with the respect they deserve.”