Pubdate: Sat, 25 Jun 2016
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


Calaveras Adopts Rules That Allow Commercial Cannabis Farms in Region 
Ravaged by Butte Fire

Worried by Pot Speculators Buying Scorched Properties, Officials Set 
Restrictions on New Cultivation

Residents Expected to Vote in November on Marijuana Tax That Could 
Bring in Millions in Revenue

MOUNTAIN RANCH - Before the sky rained fire last September, Thomas 
Liberty figured he knew where he wanted to be for the rest of his life.

A former Air Force psychiatric technician and group home counselor 
for emotionally disturbed teens, Liberty lived with his wife, Lauren, 
a hospice care social worker, in a modest wood-frame house with a 
wrap-around porch and a small marijuana garden.

Liberty, 52, says the house itself wasn't much to celebrate: three 
bedrooms, two baths and an outdated interior that looked like the 
backdrop to "bad 1970s porn." But its Calaveras County setting was 
breathtaking, with his home looking out on an emerald-hued expanse of 
ponderosa pines and oaks.

Liberty, a local medical cannabis activist, had just expanded his 
personal cultivation from a handful of plants to 99 in hopes of 
supplementing his retirement income by selling marijuana to 
dispensaries in Calaveras and Santa Rosa. He never got the chance to 
harvest the crop.

The Butte fire, the seventh-worst in California history, devoured his 
house and garden. It turned Liberty's property - "our little heaven 
on Earth" - into a charred wasteland of blackened trees stripped of foliage.

"It just hurts to see it," he said, recently walking the ground where 
his house had stood.

Yet the devastating blaze that scorched 71,000 acres and destroyed 
860 houses and other buildings helped give birth to something else: 
some of California's most tolerant local rules for permitting 
cultivation of medical marijuana for commercial sale.

On May 10, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors approved an 
urgency ordinance that allows commercial marijuana gardens of up to 
one-quarter acre on properties of at least 2 acres and permits pot 
farms of one-half acre on properties of 4 acres or more.

The county, which had no previous regulations for marijuana growing, 
is expected to make the urgency ordinance permanent with additional 
details likely to be filled in and approved by supervisors in the coming year.

Among counties known for outdoor growing, the acreage allowed in 
Calaveras appears exceeded only by that in the legendary pot haven of 
Humboldt County. There, supervisors allowed new commercial marijuana 
farms of up to 10,000-square feet and voted to let existing outdoor 
growers cultivate up to a full acre - or 43,560 square feet.

The 4-1 vote in favor of the new Calaveras ordinance came after 
cannabis advocates presented board members with seemingly 
contradictory arguments about how the county should react to pot 
cultivation in the aftermath of the fire.

On one hand, they argued, a sanctioned local marijuana industry could 
provide an economic driver for Calaveras' comeback. On the other, 
they warned, speculators with no local ties were snatching up 
fire-scorched properties on the cheap for pot farms and the county 
needed to stop it.

So supervisors set out to do both by creating a program to register 
established local medical marijuana growers and stop the land rush by 

Property owners who had existing marijuana gardens before May 10 have 
until June 30 to sign up for the county program, under which they 
will pay annual program fees of $5,000 each. Liberty, who lives in 
temporary housing in the county, says several applicants have been 
fire victims. Some grew marijuana beforehand. Others put plants in 
the ground afterward for extra income.

"It's a very weird part of the recovery," said Liberty, who applied 
for two cultivation permits, one for his existing property and a 
second for another site. "We had a lot of people lose their homes and 
possessions, and they either had insufficient insurance or no 
insurance at all. And many people saw this as a way of coming back."

Money from an anticipated 200 registered commercial marijuana farms 
is expected to fund $1 million in oversight costs for a 
cannabis-inspection program to ensure compliance with planting 
restrictions, proper water use and respect for the environment. Staff 
to be hired will include two sheriff's deputies and a sergeant, a 
compliance attorney, code enforcement officers, an agricultural 
biologist and an environmental health technician.

In addition, Calaveras County voters are expected to vote on a 
marijuana tax in November that would impose a $2-per-square-foot 
annual levy on outdoor commercial gardens - the vast majority of the 
county's cultivation - and a $5-per-square-foot fee on indoor grows.

The measure could bring in $4 million in new tax revenue to the 
county of 45,000 residents if the new rules resulted in 200 
commercial pot farms averaging 10,000 square feet - or just under a 
quarter-acre - of plants. For now, the growing permits apply only to 
medical marijuana and not to recreational use, which could be 
approved by California voters in November.

The Calaveras regulations were made possible by state medical 
marijuana legislation signed signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year. 
The state rules provided a framework allowing cities and counties to 
set local taxes and permitting standards for marijuana cultivation or 
pot business or choose to ban such operations.

Calaveras Supervisor Chris Wright, whose district included much of 
the Butte Fire damage area as well as numerous marijuana farms, said 
the state rules "signaled the evolution of a very slow march to 
legalization" as well as potential benefits for an economically 
challenged county.

The Butte Fire had followed generations of economic decline in the 
once bustling gold mining county. The county's legendary Sheep Ranch 
mine closed in 1942. Sawmills shuttered throughout the 1970s. A major 
employer, the Calaveras Cement Co. closed in 1983. That left ranching 
and Gold Country tourism as the prime local industries - other than 
unregulated pot gardens.

"It created an opportunity for this new industry to come out of the 
shadows, and that creates opportunities for rural counties," Wright 
said of California's new medical marijuana regulations. "We don't 
have a lot of industry. We don't have a lot of economic growth. In my 
view, this can be a sustainable economy."

The county's endorsement of marijuana commerce came over the 
objections of the district attorney and the sheriff. They had called 
for an outright ban on marijuana cultivation, saying they feared the 
county was already overrun with pot farms, including criminal 
networks operating on remote wooded properties. They said things were 
getting worse after the fire.

In October, two brothers, Leon Grammer, 38, and Jeremiah Barrett, 30, 
were arrested on charges of shooting and killing three men who were 
apparently trying to steal marijuana from a local pot farm.

Last month, narcotics officers raided a vast garden planted by 
growers who had trespassed onto private land, illegally siphoning 
water from a pond and planting 10,000 marijuana seedlings. On June 1, 
deputies cut down 3,500 plants on another illegal trespass grow. No 
suspects were arrested in either case.

"We go out and start searching the area by air (for hidden marijuana 
farms) and, when we fly over, they leave. They know the jig is up," 
said Calaveras Sheriff Rick Dibasilio. "By the time we get to the 
property, they're gone."

Arguing against commercial growing, Dibasilio warned supervisors 
about negative environmental impacts and his fears of residents 
encountering armed growers protecting pot farms.

But cannabis farmer Caz Tomaszewski, a 31-year-old former collegiate 
rower at the University of Puget Sound, argued that a cultivation ban 
would do nothing to drive out unwanted criminal growers.

Tomaszewski is the executive director of the Calaveras Cannabis 
Alliance, a group he says advocates for the "social and economic 
benefits" of a locally regulated marijuana trade. He said the new 
commercial cultivation rules will provide a valuable tool for law 
enforcement "because they're going to have a very clear idea who is 
in the (regulated) system and who isn't."

"And the amount of tax income that could be generated from this is 
pretty substantial," he added.

While Calaveras adopted pot-friendly regulations, approaches to 
governing marijuana cultivation vary widely across California.

Near Sacramento, supervisors in Nevada County recently banned all 
outdoor and commercial marijuana cultivation, only to have local 
voters overwhelmingly reject a June ballot measure that supported the 
ban. Community meetings are underway to draft new rules.

The city of Sacramento is readying a plan to permit limited indoor 
commercial cultivation, while revenue-starved communities in the 
Southern California desert are racing to approve millions of square 
feet of marijuana warehouses. But a vast majority of California 
cities and counties are resisting such operations, including counties 
of Sacramento, Placer and Yuba - which have banned outdoor or 
commercial marijuana operations.

But now in Calaveras, the once-resistant sheriff is dispatching 
deputies with county officials to informally visit marijuana farms to 
let growers know about the permitting deadline, new rules and future 
compliance inspections.

"They are just 'knock and talks' to let people know we're going to be 
out there checking," Dibasilio said. "We're trying to work with these folks."

Once the program is in effect, sheriff's officers and officials from 
multiple county agencies will conduct inspections to ensure gardens 
comply with square footage limits, have legally obtained water 
sources and aren't fouling the environment with sediments, 
fertilizers, pesticides or other contaminants. The county can impose 
$1,000-a-day administrative fines until corrections are made.

Among those eager to work with the program is Mark Bolger, 28, who 
grew up in an agricultural community near Stockton and went on to 
become a medical marijuana grower in Calaveras.

Well before supervisors took up the issue, Bolger had invited state 
water board officers and county land use and environmental officials 
to visit his terraced, one-half acre marijuana garden.

It sits on a sprawling property with a processing room and 
electric-powered trimming machines that harvest hundreds of pounds of 
marijuana each fall. Wearing leather boots, jeans, a plaid shirt and 
a ranch cap over short-trimmed hair, Bolger walks his cannabis garden 
with the authority of a professional farmer.

Bolger says he files state and federal tax withholding statements for 
his three workers (though the employee forms don't state the nature 
of the business.) He says he is excited to start paying taxes and 
fees to Calaveras County - in his case, more than $45,000 annually, 
including cultivation taxes and program costs.

"Taxes equal job security with this industry," Bolger said. "This is 
helping support our community."

With his long, scraggly gray hair, Liberty looks more the part of the 
old-fashioned hippie pot grower, even though he worked decades in a 
traditional career. Influenced by his wife's work with hospice 
patients, he later became involved with a local collective that 
raised marijuana for terminally and seriously ill residents.

Now a commercial grower, Liberty sees marijuana as perhaps his only 
hope for rebuilding after the ravaging Butte Fire.

The family's insurance policy didn't cover the replacement costs for 
Liberty's home. He also couldn't emotionally fathom returning there 
to live, he said. He and Lauren plan to sell the property, the place 
where they thought they would live out their retirement.

They invested the insurance settlement on an undeveloped property 
that wasn't scorched by fire, choosing a larger hilltop setting - 
this one expansive enough to allow the maximum half-acre marijuana 
garden under county rules.

There, they hope to generate enough income from a newly planted 
marijuana farm - plus the current plants on their original property - 
to be able to build a house at the second site.

"The role that cannabis is playing in the recovery can't be 
understated," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom