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Superior Court denies hemp industry's petition to reexamine county rules 

San Luis Obispo County's hemp industry received another blow in the years-long fight against restrictive hemp cultivation rules.

On May 25, county Superior Court Judge Tana Coates denied a petition for writ of mandate filed by the Coalition of Agricultural Rights—a group described as a "Wyoming nonprofit mutual benefit corporation, formed to support the hemp industry within the county."

click to enlarge SHRINKING MARKET While the hemp industry alleged that a restrictive county ordinance was a de facto ban on the plant's cultivation, Assistant County Counsel Jon Ansolabehere said that the county's receiving applications for cultivation. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SHRINKING MARKET While the hemp industry alleged that a restrictive county ordinance was a de facto ban on the plant's cultivation, Assistant County Counsel Jon Ansolabehere said that the county's receiving applications for cultivation.

The group took issue with the county's 2020 hemp ordinance prohibiting hemp cultivation in the Edna Valley and mandating that all outdoor cultivation be set back 2,000 feet from all property lines, among other restrictions.

The petition's denial isn't the first setback for hemp farmers. In late June 2020, weeks after the ordinance went into effect, SLO Judge Ginger Garrett denied the industry's request to temporarily stop the enforcement of new regulations during active litigation.

"If the petition was granted, then the writ would have directed the Board [of Supervisors] to send the ordinance back to the Planning Commission for their consideration. It depends if the writ was granted on both the planning and zoning law grounds, and the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] grounds," Assistant County Counsel Jon Ansolabehere told New Times. "If it was just granted on the planning and zoning law grounds, then it would have required the board to send the draft ordinance to the Planning Commission for its consideration, and then the board would take that input and reconsider the ordinance."

In its lawsuit, the agricultural coalition argued that the county violated CEQA requirements by failing to analyze the environmental impact of prohibiting hemp cultivation. SLO County countered with a "common sense exemption" that deemed an examination irrelevant because it was restricting, and not expanding, hemp growth.

"Petitioner [the coalition] argues that by implementing a de facto ban on hemp cultivation, farmers have been forced to cultivate other crops, or convert their lands to other uses," the court documented stated.

The court ultimately found this claim to be speculative.

"It wasn't a de facto ban. We have applications for hemp cultivation. My understanding is that the market dropped out quite a bit for hemp between 2019 and 2021," Ansolabehere said.

However, the SLO County Department of Agriculture said that the new hemp ordinance did make farmers shy away from hemp cultivation.

"Since it is very difficult for growers to meet the current ordinance requirements, we get very few applicants," Edwin Moscoso, SLO County deputy agricultural commissioner told New Times via email. "Last year (2021), we registered four people. From those, two registered for field production, but only one ended up planting and harvesting about 10 acres. One was registered as seed breeder, using a greenhouse smaller than 0.1 acres. The fourth one registered to produce seedling plants, but due to the lack of demand did not plant either."

But things could change. In 2020, the Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance 4-1, with 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson dissenting. At the time, he called it an "assault on agriculture." Now, with initial primary election results pointing to a potentially different board makeup and Gibson still in the lead for his district, the hemp ordinance could be reconsidered.

"The board could at any time decide to change this legislation. That was one of the arguments too, which is, it's more of a procedural issue than a substantive issue. They're [the coalition] better off trying to challenge this politically than legally," Ansolabehere said. Δ

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