Pubdate: Wed, 20 Jul 2016
Source: Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, CA)
Copyright: 2016 Appeal-Democrat
Author: Thomas D. Elias


You've seen fire sales. They happen when goods or real estate are 
discounted sharply after fire damages a store or a building. But the 
term has new meaning in rural Calaveras County, where the devastating 
Butte Fire swept through thousands of acres last year, the 
seventh-worst wildfire in recorded California history.

It's just possible that what's happening near towns like Mountain 
Ranch, Murphys and San Andreas could foretell at least one aspect of 
life in fertile parts of California if Proposition 64 passes this 
fall and legalizes recreational use of marijuana.

Here's one example of what's going on, as told via email by a 
Calaveras County property owner (not personally involved in this 
story): "An 80-year-old widower whose property burned near Mountain 
Ranch decided to sell and move to 'town (San Andreas  population 
2,783).' He listed his scorched 37 acres at about $350,000 with a 
broker in town. Next day, he gets a call to come in; there's an offer 
on the table. He goes to the broker and receives $500,000 in stacks of bills."

It's a fire sale in reverse, in part because marijuana entrepreneurs 
figure pot will be completely legal in California after the fall vote 
and in part because growers find burned-over properties far easier to 
farm than wooded ones that need clearing.

This transaction was fairly typical for the last year in a boom real 
estate market spurred by burned-off land, the presumption Proposition 
64 will pass easily and the fact that surrounding Sierra Nevada 
Mountain foothill counties have tighter restrictions on growing the weed.

One real estate broker in the hamlet of Valley Springs reported 
selling 36 vacant properties in the month of March. Another in San 
Andreas reportedly sold 16 parcels in three weeks.

But there's more than a real estate boom under way in the county. 
Residents report that longstanding deed restrictions against driving 
heavy trucks on privatelymaintained dirt roads leading to remote 
properties are routinely ignored as start-up growers haul in heavy 
loads of fertilizer and machinery.

There's also the possibility of violence in what is shaping up as a 
Wild West atmosphere. The same property owner who reported the quick 
37-acre cash sale at more than 40 percent above the asking price also 
gave this report: "A resident near our land walked across his 
property to the fence that divided his place from the grower's next 
door. Two men with rifles came toward him and warned him to stay away 
from the fence. He's decided to sell and leave the area."

County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio did not deny that this episode and 
others like it have occurred.

A non-grower who lived through the land boom in Mendocino County in 
the state's socalled "Emerald Triangle" after medical marijuana was 
legalized in California via the 1996 Proposition 215 said the scene 
there was similar until county regulations took hold and settled things down.

Hoping to accomplish the same, Calaveras County supervisors in May 
adopted local rules allowing pot grows of up to a quarter-acre on 
properties of at least two acres and grows of a half-acre on 
properties of four acres or more. These plots would be larger than 
any permitted in California outside Humboldt County, another Emerald 
Triangle area where legal cannabis fields can reach a full acre.

None of this includes illicit pot farms long common in rural 
California, often operated by drug cartels. These frequently poach 
state or federal lands and water.

"We definitely have some cartel growers here," said Sheriff 
DiBasilio. "But we eradicate those grows whenever we find them. It's 
hard to know who's behind them, though, because once they hear our 
helicopters, the workers disappear very quickly." When such workers 
have been caught, they've often been undocumented immigrants, many 
from South and Central America.

"California has been a bit wild compared to other states that have 
legal marijuana," said Steve Gormley, founder of Seventh Point LLC, a 
private equity fund that invests in marijuana growing. "Law 
enforcement officials need to have a clear understanding of 
regulations and enforce them in a careful manner."

No one knows for sure whether the atmosphere reported in Calaveras 
County will be duplicated elsewhere if pot is legalized. But the 
scene's similarity to previous pot booms indicates that's a good bet, 
and no one can be sure exactly where this might occur.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom