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In a surprise move, Measure J proponents are pulling the commercial cannabis citizens’ initiative from the March 3 ballot in what they called “a show of good faith” to the Napa County Board of Supervisors.

Measure J backer Eric Sklar said Wednesday he thinks the legislative process results in better laws. He expressed optimism the Board of Supervisors will work on a commercial cannabis law for the unincorporated county.

Sklar made that offer in person at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. He told supervisors if they agreed to make a good-faith effort to craft a cannabis cultivation law, he would pull Measure J from the ballot that very day.

“We think it complicates it to have an ordinance and ballot measure sitting there at the same time,” Sklar said.

The Board of Supervisors voted only last week to place the citizens’ initiative to legalize and regulate commercial cannabis cultivation on the March 3 ballot.

But Sklar received a mixed response from supervisors about the urgency of working on a commercial cannabis law. Immediately after the meeting, Sklar said that supervisors were “kicking the can” down the road and he didn’t plan to withdraw the initiative.

By Tuesday evening, Measure J proponents had arrived at a different decision. Sklar said Wednesday he is optimistic supervisors will “do their job” and work on an ordinance.

“We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the Board of Supervisors, the community and interested wine industry groups to develop an ordinance in the coming months that can address all stakeholder concerns,” the Napa Valley Cannabis Association said in a press release.

Measure J proponents on Tuesday evening submitted paperwork by email to the Election Division to withdraw the initiative from the ballot. To make things official, the department must receive the original paperwork by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Sklar wouldn’t say whether he would seek another commercial cannabis initiative in November 2020 if the Board of Supervisors fails to pass a satisfactory law. He said proponents will cross that bridge when and if they come to it.

Board chairman Ryan Gregory said Wednesday the move to withdraw Measure J surprised him.

“We didn’t make the commitments (Tuesday) that they wanted .... it definitely shows good faith. It shows they heard the message that it was a bad initiative. That seemed to be pretty universal. I’m glad they heard that and this is the best thing for the community,” Gregory said.

Measure J would have, among other things, allowed up to one acre of commercial cannabis grows on each agricultural property 10 acres or greater. It included setbacks and taxes for commercial cannabis activities. Proponents gathered enough signatures to qualify the citizens’ initiative.

The ballot measure generated controversy in some quarters, with skeptics saying cannabis grows have a skunk-like odor at times, can be incompatible with pesticide uses on nearby vineyards and raise other issues. The Napa County Farm Bureau was ready to try to defeat Measure J.

Napa County by crafting its own law might be able to go beyond Measure J in addressing these types of concerns. Supervisors viewed the undertaking with various degrees of urgency.

“’Act in haste, repent in leisure.’ I don’t see any need for us to do an ordinance now. We have too many other priorities,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said he’s been to other cities and has yet to see cannabis done right. He mentioned other priorities for limited county resources, such as housing, transportation and rebuilding from the 2017 Atlas wildfire.

Gregory said he went to Santa Rita Valley wine country in Santa Barbara County to learn about cannabis cultivation issues there. He’s not certain the setbacks called for by Measure J from schools, homes and parks are the right distances. Setbacks may also be needed from vineyards, he said.

He’s willing to add commercial cannabis activities to the county’s to-do list. But Gregory said he doesn’t want to strike a deal to create an ordinance within a fixed period of time to avoid an initiative.

“I’ve shared my vision of what a limited ordinance would look like,” Gregory said. “It’s not close to what the proponents could live with. I’m not sure we could all get there at the end of the day and what it would take.”

Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht saw advantages to tackling the issue.

“This is potentially agriculture,” Wagenknecht said. “I do realize it uses more water than grapes. That needs to be part of the calculus. But I think getting together and trying to figure it out is better than trying to say, ‘We’re not going to do that and do your darndest with your initiative.’”

Supervisor Belia Ramos said if the county moved forward, it wouldn’t be committing to passing a commercial cannabis law, but rather to do due diligence on the issue. A successful ballot initiative would take commercial cannabis issues out of the Board’s hands.

“The initiative process is what happens to us at the ballot box,” Ramos said. “The ordinance process is the governance the Board chooses for our community.”

Ramos and Dillon asked what happens when the county’s latest moratorium on commercial cannabis activities in unincorporated areas expires in December. The county cannot again renew a moratorium that began in December 2017.

The question is, if county laws are silent on commercial cannabis activities in the unincorporated county, could someone forgo county government altogether and seek permits from the state?

In the end, figuring out how to address the expiring moratorium was the only commercial cannabis issue that all supervisors agreed is urgent. They asked staff to come back with more information at a future meeting.

Should supervisors proceed with a commercial cannabis law, the effort would take months. A county report mentioned having stakeholder outreach, holding a Board of Supervisors workshop, doing environmental studies and holding Planning Commission hearings and Board of Supervisors hearings. The cost could be $180,000.

Several speakers at the Board of Supervisors meeting raised concerns about commercial cannabis cultivation.

Vintner Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards gave a list of problems commercial cannabis cultivation could cause, based on what has happened in the Santa Rita Valley. Among them are skunk-like smells from cannabis grows that bother both the public and wine industry.

“Imagine using our golden signature, the Napa Valley, to sell pot and risking what we have built over the last 140 years,” Wagner said.

He asked that, if the county allows commercial cannabis cultivation, to keep the grows out of the Napa Valley appellation.

Sklar, a former St. Helena city council member and current state Fish and Game Commission member, has previously said what is happening in Santa Barbara County isn’t comparable to what Measure J would allow. Commercial cannabis grows there are far larger than what initiative supporters contemplate for Napa County.

Gregory said the next step is for the Board of Supervisors to discuss that happens when the county’s commercial cannabis activity moratorium expires. A step after that might be stakeholder outreach and education.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.