The silence dusk brings to the California Valley is noticeable the second you swing around the corner of the Community Services District building on Soda Lake Road. It’s deafening, much like the conversations taking place at the back of the property, where residents and marijuana growers are chatting about the news delivered to the valley on May 30.
During a cannabis workshop hosted by the SLO County Cannabis Growers Business Association that took place earlier that evening, the California Valley’s representative at the county level, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, informed them that the area’s medical marijuana growers who are currently permitted to legally farm, most likely won’t be able to do so in the future. In addition to that, she passed out a sheet detailing the county’s decision to file lawsuits against five growers in the California Valley who county staff believes are growing marijuana illegally.
“Enforcement is starting,” she said.
One of the growers being sued was sitting in the front row. Although he neglected to state his name, he did say he didn’t understand why the county was suing him as he believed he was operating legally.
“If you can show that’s wrong and you’re right, then you should prevail in court,” Arnold told him. “You guys have a higher percentage of growers than anywhere else in the county, and you guys are attracting attention. … You’re grandfathered into the [current] ordinance, but that could change with the permanent ordinance.”
About 300 California Valley marijuana growers filed for a permit to grow marijuana under an urgency ordinance the SLO County Board of Supervisors passed in 2016, more than half of the people who applied in county. A recent draft of the permanent ordinance proposed an outright ban on growing in the California Valley and Carrizo Plain, something that alarms area medical marijuana growers such as Ryan Lovejoy and James Bale. Lovejoy purchased a property in the valley in 2012 and said he was initially only one of 15 growers, but then he was one of 40 growers, and now he’s one of 300.
“I hope the county understands what an opportunity this is for people in this area,” Lovejoy told Arnold during the meeting.
She encouraged him to participate in the county’s process of creating the ordinance, which she said is ongoing. Arnold said the last draft of the permanent ordinance had some changes in it that the Board of Supervisors didn’t necessarily ask for and that a new iteration of the draft is expected on June 5. But when workshop attendees asked whether she supported cannabis growing operations in the valley, she simply stated that the Board of Supervisors agrees that growing on land zoned as residential suburban, such as much of the land in the California Valley, is a no-no.
It’s a simple land-use decision, she said, adding that most of the residential suburban areas of the county aren’t compatible with the commercial growing of marijuana.
The way you fix the problem of growing in the valley, she said, is to change the zoning. But Bale and Lovejoy pleaded with Arnold to treat the California Valley as unique. Although it is technically zoned as residential suburban, the area is sparsely populated and the lots are large (2.5 acres) but not quite as large as they would be in an agriculturally zoned area, Lovejoy said.
“Write in an exception … for people who are in this weird little scenario right here,” Bale said. “Here we are giving you feedback, saying we’re not going to have a job next year, and asking you to fix it.”
Larry Montenegro, who’s lived out in the valley for about 30 years and helped organize the workshop, made similar statements, saying that marijuana seems to be the only industry (other than the solar farm) that’s working out in the California Valley, which he argued is the poorest community in the county.
“Work with us. Give us an opportunity to show you we can succeed. We are smart people. We are not a bunch of hillbillies out here,” he said. “Look at everything that we have, and you will see we that we have nothing.”