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Community division, accusations imperil York Mountain medical marijuana project 

Plans for 3 acres of outdoor medical cannabis cultivation and seven greenhouses on agricultural land in North County are in limbo after SLO County supervisors delayed a decision on the project at a Feb. 26 appeal hearing.

click to enlarge DIVIDED Templeton area community members are divided over a medical cannabis cultivation site proposed on York Mountain Road (pictured). Its approval was appealed to the SLO County Board of Supervisors. - IMAGE COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • Image Courtesy Of Slo County
  • DIVIDED Templeton area community members are divided over a medical cannabis cultivation site proposed on York Mountain Road (pictured). Its approval was appealed to the SLO County Board of Supervisors.

The appeal hearing—the first of its kind for a cannabis project in SLO County—lasted four hours and showcased a community at odds. Residents from across the county came to weigh in, at times emotionally, on the grows proposed 7 miles west of Paso Robles, on York Mountain Road.

"This is the most divisive project I think that's come before this board," said SLO County 1st District Supervisor John Peschong, who represents the area.

York Mountain residents Frank Ricigliano and Sue Sullivan own the 77-acre parcel where the project is planned. They declined to comment for this story.

The site is positioned less than a mile off Highway 46, and SLO County issued a minor use permit to applicants Laura Gardner and Jim McAllister for the project in September 2018. The following month, Templeton area resident Ian McPhee appealed that decision.

Opponents, which include the project's direct neighbors, voiced concerns about the operation's odor, water, and security impacts, as well as its overall compatibility with the York Mountain community.

"We moved to that area in 1995 for the peace, quiet, and serenity that it would offer," said Mary Bang, who owns the property and home nearest to the site. "Since 1995, we have not seen any commercial-sized agricultural producing crop on that property."

The project's nine proposed buildings—which include greenhouses, a nursery, offices, and processing facilities—would be located 400 feet from the Bangs' property line. The outdoor cultivation is 650 feet away and atop a hill. Both distances exceed the county's setback rules for cannabis grows, but that didn't quell all concerns.

"I have two small children. They both have asthma," said Kristy Popowich, the Bangs' daughter. "I do not believe there have been any studies to show what something like this does to somebody who already has respiratory issues. I'm very concerned."

Supporters, on the other hand, argued that the project's water, biological, archaeological, and traffic studies showed there'd be minimal impacts to the environment. Odor, they said, would be addressed via odor filtration systems in the greenhouses, as well as ongoing participation in an odor-monitoring program.

"This project meets all of the requirements," said Jamie Jones, the applicants' representative at the hearing.

In her presentation, Jones also accused the appellant and the Templeton Area Advisory Group (TAAG), whose board voted to oppose the project, of using deceptive tactics to sway the Board of Supervisors against it.

A Google Earth photo submitted by the appellant and TAAG aimed to demonstrate that the cannabis site would be visible from Highway 46. Jones contended that the photo had been manipulated using a Google tool that denudes the landscape of nearby trees and shrubbery.

"There were clearly special efforts by manipulation, and we just think that's unfair," Jones told the board.

While the appellant's attorney and TAAG representatives denied the allegation, 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill and 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton weren't convinced.

"I do believe the pictures were meant to deceive," Compton said.

Hill added, "I don't think we want to start a precedent of making a decision based on manipulated information or false information."

That wasn't the only accusation made at the hearing. One community member alleged that after he attended a TAAG meeting about the project, he found out his name had been included in a statement sent to the supervisors against it.

"Later on, I got word that my name and my email was submitted with opposition to the board without my permission," Bob Stewart said. "I'm 100 percent in support of this project, so whoever submitted my name and email, I don't like it."

Members of TAAG and the community in opposition expressed their own grievances with the process around the project. They described a rushed and scattered review, where new revisions to the project weren't shared in detail with the community. While TAAG initially recommended approval of the project in October 2018, as concerns mounted and the appeal was filed, the group reversed its position.

"The overall effort was to reflect the voice of the community," said Larry Fluer, an elected member of TAAG and its cannabis project review committee. "As we listened to these voices, it shifted our focus."

County supervisors voted unanimously to continue the hearing to March 12. The applicant and appellant agreed to meet in the interim to try to strike a compromise, which may include moving the outdoor grow site farther away from the Bangs' property, among other tweaks.

While the hearing marked the first cannabis appeal in SLO County, it won't be the last. Of the county's 17 approved cannabis projects thus far, seven have been appealed to the board.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson (2nd District) thinks the objections stem from the crop itself, and not the particulars of the project.

"If this were 3 acres of wine grapes and seven greenhouses growing tomatoes with two processing buildings, we wouldn't be here today," Gibson said. "The question really boils down to whether we have a problem with cannabis." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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