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Supervisors face mounting pressure to tighten cannabis ordinance 

As commercial cannabis applications slowly make their way through San Luis Obispo County's bureaucracy, some rural residents are fighting the fledging industry with activism and lawsuits—and it remains unclear how county supervisors will respond.

At a June 4 meeting, North and South County residents asked the SLO County Board of Supervisors to tighten its cannabis ordinance to further limit where—and how much—cannabis activity can be permitted in unincorporated SLO.

"The citizens here clearly believe they're being overlooked," Creston resident Don Wilson told the board.

click to enlarge CHALLENGED Some SLO County residents are asking county supervisors to revise a cannabis ordinance to add more limits and restrictions on the fledging industry. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CHALLENGED Some SLO County residents are asking county supervisors to revise a cannabis ordinance to add more limits and restrictions on the fledging industry.

Wilson said he was in a standing-room-only crowd last month at a Creston Advisory Body meeting to oppose an application for indoor cannabis cultivation and manufacturing near the North County town. It's one of a handful of such applications submitted in the greater Creston area.

"The citizens of Creston showed up and resisted the idea of the several applications of cannabis grows around our small town," he said. "They're concerned about crime; they're concerned about the safety of their children."

SLO County's cannabis ordinance—adopted in 2017—allows a pool of 141 growers to apply for permits. Each application is subject to site requirements, such as acreage minimums and 1,000-foot setbacks from "sensitive receptors" like schools, as well as case-by-case discretionary reviews.

Some residents said they don't feel the limits on the industry are strong enough.

"As a SLO County supervisor, you have decision-making authority and must balance between big cannabis and small-town America," said Jim Wortner, of Creston. "Cannabis use is now legal in California, but it is up to each county to determine how and where cannabis projects will be defined by county ordinance."

At a future meeting scheduled as early as September, county supervisors will consider several potential changes to the ordinance—including an outright ban on outdoor cultivation, lengthening setbacks, and requiring a residence to be included as being a sensitive receptor, among other revisions.

Supervisors—like 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton and 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson—are divided on those issues.

"When we started this, we didn't know anything; we did not know the impact this was going to have," Compton said. "You have to change [the ordinance] as you learn."

"There are parts of [the proposed revisions] I absolutely oppose," countered Gibson. "They are extreme and unwarranted."

Cannabis industry members and supporters showed up on June 4 to defend the industry, contending that the county should not make substantial changes to an ordinance that hasn't had the chance to work yet. As of March, the county had approved 17 cannabis projects; nearly half of those have been appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

"None of these permitted operations are up and going," said Jason Kallen, an applicant in Templeton. "A lot of the fear being relayed to you today is based on reefer madness from the last 70 years."

In two recent appeal cases where supervisors sided with the cannabis applicant, the neighboring residents filed lawsuits.

On May 1, Save York Mountain, a group of residents in rural Templeton, filed a suit challenging a cannabis grow on York Mountain Road off of Highway 46. On May 29, a Nipomo group called Save Our Nipomo Neighborhoods filed a lawsuit over a cultivation and delivery project on Willow Road. Both cases allege improper environmental review.

If SLO County revises its ordinance, the changes would apply to cannabis applicants who have yet to complete the months-long permitting process. Industry members argued it would be a significant burden for them to change plans mid process.

"We've spent over $500,000 on this in two years trying to be up to par with your regulations and your ordinance," said Sandra Wood of the Paso Robles-based Coastal Elevation. "You'd hurt us ... if you made any changes today. That's not fair."

Third District Supervisor Adam Hill agreed.

"To suggest we should institute a whole bunch of changes, I can't imagine any other industry that would not be outraged by such a proposal. It's just not fair," Hill said.

After the meeting, Compton told New Times she wouldn't push for an outright ban on outdoor grows but would seek other tweaks to address odor issues and to limit the concentration of projects in a particular area, like Nipomo.

"The biggest issue is smell," Compton said. "The dilemma we're in now is when we started out this is all new. We were making decisions in a vacuum. ... We're getting a better idea now—it smells really bad." Δ

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