Pubdate: Sun, 29 May 2016
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Peter Fimrite


TRINIDAD, Humboldt County - Pot politics are nothing new to Sunshine 
Johnston, who has been cultivating cannabis on her organic farm near 
the famous Avenue of the Giants for many years. But the emergence of 
land speculators in the Emerald Triangle is threatening to ruin her 
bucolic buzz.

Johnston, her friends, neighbors and fellow growers are perturbed by 
hordes of high rollers who are snapping up every old ranch, logging 
tract and forested parcel that goes on the market.

The scramble for land in Humboldt County and, to a lesser extent, 
Mendocino County, is an apparent attempt by entrepreneurs to cash in 
on the possible legalization in November of recreational pot peddling 
in California.

"The way people are behaving is like multinational corporations in 
Third World countries," said Johnston, 43, who runs a growers 
cooperative called Sunboldt Grown that sells medicinal and 
"artisanal" weed. "There's a feeling of a free-for-all and of people 
taking advantage of the local community."

The land grab is happening here in part because Humboldt has name 
cachet in the weed world and because the county was the first in 
California to adopt a commercial marijuana land use ordinance.

'It's pot on crack'

The pot industry is hardly new to the county - the Emerald Triangle 
has long been the world's best-known ganja-growing region - but 
nobody can remember the market for property being this red hot since 
the once-thriving timber industry began dying out decades ago.

"It's like a gold rush," said Kevin Sullivan, a real estate broker 
who recently sold several large, historic ranches in Humboldt County 
to growers who he said were open about their intentions. "People are 
coming from all over the place, from different states, and they're 
all buying to grow or to split the land up for multiple people to 
grow. It's pot on crack, and it's driving prices up."

Jim Redd, a real estate agent who specializes in ranch sales in 
Humboldt and Mendocino counties, said land that under normal 
circumstances would sell for $1,500 an acre is now going for up to 
$4,000 an acre.

Gone in a week

One 65-acre plot in Redway, midway between Fort Bragg and Eureka, had 
25 offers recently when it was put up for sale. It eventually went to 
a marijuana cultivator, neighbors said.

Redd said buyer consortia generally try to subdivide the big ranches, 
which can be 5,000 acres or larger, into parcels that can accommodate 
a dozen or more grow sites on the property.

"There are not many large ranches that go on the market, but if they 
do they are gone within a week," Redd said.

Mitchel Bryant and two other investors recently bought four parcels, 
each 30 acres, just outside Garberville for about $1 million. Their 
plan is to obtain licenses from the county to grow medical marijuana.

Bryant said he bought 200 acres for about $500,000 two years ago, and 
that pot farm did so well that he decided to double down.

"We were basically, like, wow, the timing looks pretty good," said 
Bryant, 34, who lives in Walnut Creek. "We had to look where we are 
allowed to do it, where we can find people to operate it, and there 
is obviously brand recognition with the Humboldt name."

Bryant says he's already been contacted by several people who want to 
buy his land, including an investment company in Southern California 
that indicated it was willing to offer a good deal more than what he 
paid for it. For now, he has no plans to flip the property.

The situation is alarming for those who wish to preserve some of 
California's most beautiful, environmentally sensitive forests and 
coastal areas. Sullivan said the speculators are outbidding all 
comers, including land conservation groups.

The Wildlands Conservancy, which over the years has bought 150,000 
acres of forest and coastal wildlands in California and created 15 
nature preserves, was recently outbid by pot growers for a 6,500-acre 
ranch on the Eel River.

"It's extremely unfortunate," said David Myers, executive director of 
the conservancy, which was prepared to finalize a purchase agreement 
for $15 million when the growers swooped in with more than $20 million.

"Every landscape is, in its own right, a masterpiece, and once you 
start scissoring it up, you can't bring it back," Myers said.

The Wildlands Conservancy did manage to obtain an option to buy 
another property, a spectacular 128-acre stretch of coastline known 
as Scotty Point. The site, between the seaside town of Trinidad and 
Patrick's Point State Park, is a former pot farm.

The conservancy now has a little more than a month to raise $2.3 
million to complete the purchase, allowing Myers to turn Scotty Point 
into a nature preserve with hiking trails and Adirondack shelters for camping.

"We have to close this deal, or else it goes to pot growers. That's 
the sad truth," Myers said as he stood on a steep hillside above the 
rocky knifeedge point, sea lions barking amid the roar of the ocean. 
"We're trying to make a last run at some of these properties before 
they're split up and sold off to pot growers. I see it as the last 
chance to preserve some of these great spaces."

The hot real estate market is evidently driven by a measure likely to 
qualify for the November statewide ballot that would legalize 
recreational use of marijuana. It is being helped along by a 
perception that the federal government, although it still considers 
marijuana an illegal drug, is no longer strictly enforcing laws 
against growing or selling the aromatic crop.

Meanwhile, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, the District of Columbia and 
Alaska have legalized recreational use of the drug. If California 
follows suit, Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties - the Emerald 
Triangle - would undoubtedly be the primary region for cultivators.

That's largely because the area already produces 60 percent of the 
weed consumed in the United States, including a significant portion 
of what has been sold for 20 years to California's medical marijuana 
dispensaries. Marijuana infuses more than $400 million a year into 
the Humboldt economy alone.

The booming industry isn't hurting real estate agents - Sullivan and 
Redd say they are making money - or the many local businesses, 
especially agricultural merchants, that cater to marijuana farmers.

It's not just that consumers consider Humboldt to be to pot what the 
Napa Valley is to wine. Adding to the fabled Humboldt stamp is the 
county's landmark Medical Marijuana Land Use Ordinance, which went 
into effect Feb. 29.

It allows up to an acre of outdoor cultivation, a half acre of 
mixed-light growth and 10,000 square feet of indoor growth on each 
parcel licensed by the county.

The ordinance, which has a deadline of Dec. 31 for cultivators to 
apply for a permit, gives incentives for growers to set up shop in 
agricultural zones. That's where many speculators and pot growers 
looking to relocate are concentrating their efforts.

More than 40 applications have already been submitted to the county, 
but there are at least 370 known growers who are expected to apply 
before the year is out, said Steve Lazar, the county's senior 
planner. The county has about 8,400 pot growers, according to a 2012 survey.

"There has been exponential growth in the industry, and we've had a 
lot of action in the last six months," said Lazar, who helped draft 
the marijuana land use ordinance. "We like to say we are the tip of the spear."

The hemp industry is also growing in other places. The market is 
likely to take off in counties that draft laws regulating cultivation 
- - 15 of California's 58 counties are working on permitting plans, 
according to marijuana lobbyists.

Besides Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, pot growers are 
flocking to places such as Calaveras and Placer counties. It is 
widely believed that the Central Valley will become a major growing 
region if marijuana cultivation becomes fully legal - after all, 
though Humboldt is where the action has always been, most varieties 
of pot grow better on flat ground in full sun.

"Humboldt County is the poster child, but this phenomenon is really a 
statewide challenge," said Hezekiah Allen, former proprietor of a 
Humboldt pot farm who is now executive director of the California 
Growers Association, which represents cannabis cultivators.

There are, in fact, quite a few problems with the trend, said Robert 
Sutherland, founder of the Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy 
Project, which filed a lawsuit to block the Humboldt County ordinance 
on the grounds it encourages environmental damage.

"We're talking to a very large degree about absentee owners trying to 
get in on the ground floor," Sutherland said. "The county in their 
policies of nonenforcement and overly liberal allowances has waved a 
green flag at the world and said, 'Come here.' As a result, we've had 
a huge influx of people snapping up land and showing no respect for 
the environment, for the community or for the law."

Environmental damage from pot farming has been a major problem for 
decades. Drug traffickers growing illegally, often on public land, 
use pesticides and fertilizers that have poisoned wildlife, including 
endangered spotted owls and Pacific fishers.

Growers have clear-cut trees, removed native vegetation, diverted 
streams, caused erosion, shot deer and littered the landscape with 
garbage and human waste.

The Humboldt County ordinance does require growers to meet 
environmental guidelines to get a permit, but it does little to 
address the illegal grow sites, which account for about 80 percent of 
what is sold on the East Coast, said Lt. John Nores of the California 
Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The hope is that the taxes collected by the county for marijuana 
cultivation can be used to fund law enforcement efforts against drug 
cartels, Nores said.

"What we're trying to do now is mobilize all of the growers who are 
trying to do it right to help fund us, and we're getting a lot of 
grower support," Nores said. "They are going to be our biggest 
funders by design, in the taxes they pay to grow."

Still, Sutherland said, not enough is being done to protect the 
locals who were responsible for legitimizing the pot trade in the first place.

"Humboldt County has a worldwide reputation, and it was earned by 
people who weren't growing to make a lot of money. It was to produce 
a high-quality product," Sutherland said. "These people are trying to 
cash in on our reputation by mass-producing a junk product with our 
label on it."

Lazar, the county senior planner, said the pot industry "has had 
profound impacts on the county, for good and for bad. How we 
transition from an unregulated industry to a regulated one will be 
central to our success."

The reefer madness is especially tough for people like Johnston, who 
prides herself on growing cannabis in an environmentally sustainable 
way, without pesticides or chemicals. She longs for the day when hemp 
is legal across the country, the black market has been eliminated, 
and land speculators interested in bulk production have moved to the 
Central Valley.

When that time comes, she said, Humboldt will be the undisputed 
artisanal grass capital of the country, and restaurant goers will be 
selecting her sinsemilla varietals for after-dinner tokes.

"Ecological agriculture is the answer," Johnston said as she 
sauntered through fields of sticky red and yellow flowering buds with 
names like Loopy Fruit, Blue Dream and Mendocino Diesel. "It's about 
planning for the future, healing yourself and healing the land at the 
same time."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom