What would legal commercial cultivation of cannabis look like in Napa Valley?
Last week, the Board of Supervisors said they would conduct community outreach meetings starting next year before deciding if the county should allow cannabis cultivation. Supervisors said they would proceed cautiously given concerns about how a future cannabis industry could coexist alongside Napa’s wine industry.
“There is no other place in the state of California where we can point to a county (wine/cannabis) ordinance that works,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said. “Being asked to invent the one that will is quite the challenge.”
Commercial cultivation is legal in the unincorporated areas of 23 of California’s 58 counties, including Sonoma County, which has its own premium wine reputation to protect. It’s also legal in neighboring Lake and Yolo counties, and in Santa Barbara County, which has a burgeoning wine industry.
In Santa Barbara, which has granted the most temporary growing permits in the state, interaction between the wine and cannabis industries has not been entirely peaceful: the county has faced concerns over odor, the appearance of cultivation-related infrastructure, and even potential legal disputes. One grapegrower altered her use of pesticides after a complaint was filed with the County over pesticide drift onto a neighboring cannabis farm.
Stephanie Honig of Honig Vineyard & Winery, a co-founder of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association (NVCA), said Napa can learn from other regions that have legalized commercial cultivation.
“We really care about protecting Napa’s brand – (commercial cannabis cultivation) won’t hurt that brand, it’ll enhance it,” Honig said. “Lake County has been successful. People keep using Santa Barbara as a warning, but we don’t want to be like Santa Barbara either.”
In Sonoma County, only a handful of permits have been approved since commercial cultivation was made legal in 2017, and many of those approvals have been appealed by neighbors, causing further delay. Consequently, there’s been limited opportunity for interaction – either positive or negative – between the county’s cannabis and wine industries.
Proponents of commercial cultivation have formed the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, which holds monthly mixers to discuss the state of the county’s industry. At this month’s meeting on Wednesday, attendees expressed frustration with the application process, and some wondered aloud if the resistance from Sonoma’s other industries, wine included, were intentionally helping to slow the pace.
In neighboring Lake County, the conversation has been a different one: cannabis cultivation has been a way to collect badly-needed tax revenue, according to Bobby Dutcher, a Lake County real estate broker and vineyard owner. He added that cannabis growing existed in Lake County well before it was legalized.
Rob Fitzsimmons, an assistant planner with Lake County, said the county currently has around 38 fully approved grows and 11 early activated grows. Lake County allows for 12 new permit applications a month – it’s been hitting capacity every month – and currently has a wait list that is almost 70 applications long, he said.
Dutcher, who is a proponent of cultivation, described the legal cannabis industry today as dealing with “growing pains.”
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“There’s still a little bit of distrust in the industry from the winery side – there’s still a fear of odor taint from having an outdoor (cannabis) operation nearby,” said Dutcher, who believes that fear will lessen over time. He has one client who is growing both grapes and cannabis on the same property, he added.
It’s a matter of difference in county culture, according to NVCA board member Alicia Rose, whose cannabis company, HerbaBuena, previously sourced its product from both Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
“Mendocino County has great wineries, but (wine) is not an entrenched piece of the culture there like it is in Napa and Sonoma,” said Rose, who previously worked in marketing for the wine industry. “There are more cannabis growers than grape growers; it’s a completely different conversation.”
In August, Napa County proponents of cannabis cultivation collected the necessary amount of signatures to put the issue on the March 3 ballot as Measure J. A week later, its creators withdrew Measure J in what they said was “a show of good faith.”
In Napa, opponents of commercial cultivation have voiced a number of concerns, many of which echo the issues Santa Barbara has been challenged to address since legalizing cultivation. They include odor, the impact of cannabis fields on Napa’s viewshed, and interaction with other agriculture. Impact on the Napa Valley appellation has also been at the forefront of the discussion.
In August, the county came out with a 9111 report – a study that analyzed the potential impacts of commercial cultivation in Napa on a range of topics like finances, land use and agriculture.
“A lot of what was illuminated in the 9111 report troubled many in our membership and our leadership – and whether it’s an initiative that has been withdrawn, an ordinance or a future initiative, we just don’t see how some of those (concerns) can be mitigated,” said Rex Stults, director of industry relations for the Napa Valley Vintners.
He reiterated concerns over odor and viewshed disruption, as well as any crime that commercial cultivation might draw into Napa.
Erik Sklar, co-founder of the NVCA, said any future ordinance permitting commercial cultivation would have to address “any real concerns” – including how much distance must be left between commercial cultivation and neighbors, and the allotted size of grows.
“We’re in a great situation – we can learn from what’s gone on elsewhere,” Sklar said. “The reality is that some places have gotten it more right than others.”
This story has been edited to reflect the nature of a dispute over pesticide drift onto a cannabis crop in Santa Barbara County. There has been no formal lawsuit filed in Santa Barbara County, but rather a complaint.