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Napa County will seek public opinion starting in January as an initial step to figuring out what – if any – place commercial cannabis activities have in rural wine country.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed staff to plan community outreach meetings. Then supervisors next April could discuss possible cannabis cultivation, sales and manufacturing in the unincorporated county outside of cities.

Supervisors talked of proceeding cautiously after hearing wine groups express serious doubts about whether the wine and cannabis industries would be a good mix.

“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 work is quite a challenge.”

Supervisor Belia Ramos cast the lone “no” vote. She unsuccessfully proposed her own idea for community outreach that explicitly separated the issues of commercial cannabis cultivation and cannabis sales. She said each involves separate policy considerations.

The county’s timetable wasn’t what Eric Sklar of Napa Valley Cannabis Association envisioned. In August, he said he’d like the Board of Supervisors to work on regulations this year.

Sklar and other backers qualified the now-defunct Measure J citizens’ initiative for the March ballot to let voters settle commercial cannabis issues for unincorporated areas outside of cities. Among other things, Measure J would have allowed one acre of commercial cannabis cultivation on most rural parcels 10 acres or larger.

They recently withdrew Measure J in what Sklar called a “good faith” move to allow the Board of Supervisors to tackle the matter, though supervisors made no commitment. Sklar said the legislative process before the Board of Supervisors results in better laws.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Sklar said the Board of Supervisors seems to be kicking the can down the road, which can be a way to kill an issue.

“It doesn’t feel like good faith to me,” he said.

The Napa Valley Cannabis Association has the option of trying to qualify another initiative for the November 2020 ballot. Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht alluded to this possibility.

“I would rather us be doing a thoughtful ordinance than (have) an initiative jammed down the community’s throat down the line because of our inaction,” Wagenknecht said.

One thing all parties agreed on – Napa County in the short-term should pass a law banning commercial cannabis activities in the unincorporated county to buy time to sort the issues out. The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to prepare such an ordinance.

“We don’t want anybody planting without proper regulations in place,” said Stephanie Honig of Honig Vineyard & Winery on behalf of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association.

Disagreements arose over what to do next. Supervisors during public comments heard from advocates and opponents of local commercial cannabis cultivation, with most speakers wary about or hostile to the idea.

Napa Valley Farm Bureau had pledged to oppose Measure J. Group CEO Ryan Klobas said the county should hold the community outreach meetings without the foregone conclusion that some type of law allowing and regulating commercial cannabis activities will result.

“That’s the position of the Farm Bureau,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to fight and defend as we continue to go down this path. Do we need it or do we not?”

Tom Davies of St. Helena called commercial cannabis cultivation “a threat to the wine industry.” He painted a picture of visitors heading up the Napa Valley on Highway 29 and seeing cannabis hoop houses surrounded by barbed wire, with armed guards and guard dogs.

“I also wonder how our visitors would like the smell,” said Davies, who is president of V. Sattui Winery. “The smell is unmistakable. It smells like skunk. It is not pleasant.”

He talked of Fiddlestix Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. The winery had to stop using its preferred fungicide on vineyards because of potential drift onto neighboring cannabis crops that under state law must be free of fungicides. That led to mildew and grape loss.

Sklar called the Davies vision “hyperbolic scare tactics.” Napa Valley Cannabis Association members are grape growers. Santa Barbara County is one of the worst examples of how to regulate cannabis cultivation in the state, he said.

A 10-acre pilot project could be done in Napa County. Cannabis grows could be banned from the valley floor. Grows could be limited to one acre, not the 40 acres next to Fiddlestix, Sklar said.

“We’ve already offered solutions to all the problems they’ve talked about,” he said.

Napa Valley Vintners representative Michelle Novi said the local wine industry took 150 years to build. She called commercial cannabis “a risk that is simply not worth taking.”

“The truth is, no other wine region has yet to get (commercial cannabis activities) right,” Novi said.

Napa Valley Grapegrowers encouraged the county to take whatever time is needed to fully comprehend the potential impacts of commercial cannabis cultivation. Winegrowers of Napa County supported the county’s move for public outreach. Visit Napa Valley asked the to county consider regulations that protect the county’s world-class wines.

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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.