Pubdate: Fri, 08 Jul 2016
Source: Union Democrat, The (Sonora, CA)
Copyright: 2016 Western Communications, Inc
Author: Jason Cowan


County Has Permitted About 800 Growers

The destruction left by the Butte Fire was still evident Thursday 
morning in remnants of charred, leafless trees and gaping holes on 
hillsides, but vegetation does grow from the ruins: marijuana.

In an area hit hardest last year, not far from Baker Riley Way in 
Mokelumne Hill, lies a pocket of cannabis cultivators.

Among them is Max Cirello, 19. He said Calaveras County officials 
told him he was among the youngest in the area to obtain a commercial 
license last week.

After a six-week window to obtain a permit to cultivate within the 
county, registration for cannabis cultivators ended June 30.

Because of the volume of applications received toward the end of the 
process, Peter Maurer, Calaveras County planning director, said the 
planning department began accepting applications to verify after the deadline.

As of Tuesday, Maurer said they received between 250 and 300 
applications in the days before the deadline. The county had already 
permitted about 800.

Cirello said, on the final day to sign up, his name was found on the 
ninth page of a 26-page list that had 30 applicants per page. He said 
he was one of the lucky ones, being among the final names called by 
the deadline.

He said others, like his dad, were-wait listed and instructed to 
return, by appointment, at a later date.

The grow

The drive to Cirello's property looks like most others in the county. 
No guard towers or aggressive watchdogs. The operation is not visible 
from the roadside. His property line facing the road is fenced off 
with fabric lying on top to obstruct any view from the outside, per 
county stipulations.

Cirello said his property, which he leases from his father's 
ex-girlfriend, spans 2.1 acres. The cultivation area covers less than 
10 percent of the property. County code stipulates a grow cannot 
exceed 15 percent of an entire parcel.

All plants are 75 feet from the edge of the property line in 
accordance with county rules.

To tend to his crops, he wakes up at 6 a.m. each day. By 7 a.m., he 
waters the crops, all of which are sitting atop grates to "let the 
roots breathe" inside 30 gallon pots. Soon, he'll transplant the 
plants into 60 gallon pots. He said he finishes his work around noon.

His goal for the year is to harvest 400 plants by the end of the 
year. The amount should produce 900 pounds of cannabis. Jeremy 
Carlson, owner of the Little Trees Wellness dispensary in Arnold, 
estimated Cirello could fetch between $1,100 and $1,200 per pound if 
the plant quality is good.

Expenses to date

The last calendar year has been a challenge for Cirello, who is 
growing independently this year for the first time. Last year, the 
Butte Fire wiped out half of his grow, destroyed the trailer he was 
living in and a few structures. What little he saved was destroyed by the wind.

Ultimately, the year was what he called a "write off." Cirello 
estimated he lost between $60,000 and $70,000 in total. His dad, who 
has two commercial permits in Murphys, helped mitigate some of the 
financial losses, he said.

This season, he said he has already spent about $50,000, most of 
which are one time charges, like a new living space, water tanks and 
fencing among other expenses.

He spent another $10,000 on ensuring he would be permitted to operate 
in Calaveras County. Expenses included the $5,000 commercial permit 
fee, a $2,500 fee to the water board because he is a moderate risk 
for water discharge to impact the surrounding land, and a cost for a 
lawyer to ensure he was filling out the application correctly.

Cirello indicated it will be different in the coming years under the 
current code. He'll just have to account for the plant expenses, 
annual permit renewal fees and nutrients.

The funds

Maurer said Tuesday all money accumulated from cannabis growers 
through the application process must be spent implementing programs. 
He said the total, as of last week, was over $2.5 million.

Maurer predicted the county could see between $3 million and $3.5 
million after all applications are processed.

The money would help fund programs for the various local agencies 
involved in the process: the planning department, the sheriff's 
office and environmental health among others. Maurer said the money 
will fund the various inspections to ensure cultivators are code 
compliant, enforcement for those who fall outside and programs 
involved in the application review process.

Maurer said a majority of the applications have been for commercial 
permits. At $5,000, it is the most expensive permit available to 
cultivators. Other licenses included caregiver, $200, and personal use, $100.

The future

Inspired by his father's work in the industry, Cirello began 
cultivating three years ago. A graduate of John Vierra High School in 
the fall of 2015, he said he wants to remain in the industry until he retires.

Though county supervisors passed the urgency ordinance in May, 
Carlson, said the future of the industry in the county is still uncertain.

County officials will revisit the ordinance in February 2017 with 
discussions on whether to extend another year if no permanent measure 
is in place by then. To extend for another year, four of the five 
county supervisors must vote in favor of the measure. The board could 
have up to four new members by the time of the vote.

More immediate, however, is a permanent measure that will go before 
the board on Tuesday. Carlson said supervisors can approve it as is, 
or push it to voters to decide in November.

Despite the uncertainty, Cirello said he has already begun 
preparations to grow for another season. Before too long, he is 
hoping to move to a larger property.

"I am trying to make it my full future," Cirello said. "Now that they 
have said it is good, I am not looking at them pulling it all away. 
If they do, it will be a bummer."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom