MIDDLETOWN — Eric Sklar holds up his Lake County cannabis farm as a model for what he said could be done in Napa County, if only Napa County would allow commercial cannabis grows.
Sklar considers the venture to be cannabis done right. He gave a tour Friday of a half-acre cannabis grow to Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht, Lake County Supervisor Bruno Sabatier and the Napa Valley Register.
“I want Supervisor Wagenknecht—and all the (Napa) supervisors, hopefully—to see a county where it works,” Sklar said before driving the group from downtown Middletown to his farm.
The Napa County Board of Supervisors could next year consider allowing commercial cannabis cultivation in unincorporated areas. Supervisors have been cautious amid concerns voiced by the wine industry.
Sklar talked enthusiastically about the cannabis industry and ways to deal with concerns. His career includes founding a Washington D.C. burrito take-out chain in 1988 and co-founding Alpha Omega winery in Napa Valley in 2005. He is CEO of Napa Valley Fumé cannabis business and a Napa Valley Cannabis Association member.
An equally enthusiastic Sabatier talked about Lake County laws that regulate the cannabis industry and a new generation that grew up with a cannabis culture and doesn’t see a stigma attached to it. The former mayor of Clear Lake was elected to the Lake County Board of Supervisors last year.
Wagenknecht, wearing his usual “Be Kind” button, was business-like and asked questions. The long-time local school teacher has been on the Napa County Board of Supervisors since 1999.
Sklar drove along a narrow road through a remote landscape with trees blackened by the 2015 Valley fire jutting up out of brown chaparral. He stopped short of his goal and opened the windows.
“We’re about 2,000 feet from our garden. Smell anything?” he asked.
“No, I don’t,” Wagenknecht said.
Napa County earlier this year had a report done on commercial cannabis cultivation. One potential problem mentioned was the crop’s potential to have a “skunky” odor that is often unpleasant to neighbors.
“As a result, odor impact from nearby commercial cannabis operations could detract from both outdoor and indoor tasting areas at adjacent wineries,” said the report done by HdL Companies and Goldfarb & Lipman, LLP.
Sklar repeated the smell test at 1,000 feet, 500 feet and 250 feet. By 250 feet, the odor had kicked in. Inside the garden, the smell was strong indeed, with the strength varying among the different types of cannabis.
After this impromptu smell experiment, Sklar said buffers around commercial cannabis grows could deal with odor concerns. Wagenknecht didn’t voice an opinion.
At recent Napa County Board of Supervisors meetings, cannabis critics have pointed to experiences in Santa Barbara County. Odor complaints from residents in Carpinteria and other locations there have been numerous, leading to contentious public meetings.
“Santa Barbara is a totally different animal,” Sklar said, adding that allowing 25 acres of cannabis in hoop houses as is done there is going to cause problems.
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Sabatier said Lake County has cannabis exclusion zones, such as within 1,000 feet of a community growth boundary. He has yet to hear odor complaints and he knows people who live in rural homes near the Fumé gardens.
“We want it to be in more remote locations,” Sabatier said. “So far, it has worked.”
The Napa County report raised the possibility of hoop houses associated with commercial cannabis cultivation marring scenic wine country views. Critics have also raised the prospect of cannabis grows surrounded by barbed wire and guards.
Sklar proposed that no commercial cannabis grows be allowed on the Napa Valley floor or to be visible from its thoroughfares, Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. He also proposed they be kept out of the Carneros wine region.
The Fumé half-acre cannabis cultivation is tidy and neat behind a chain link fence enclosed by a tan wind screen. Plants grow 8 feet to 12 feet tall along trellises in rows, with gravel on the ground.
Richard Derum is Fumé’s master cultivator. He roamed the garden with his long, red hair under a large-rimmed hat. He said the Butts Canyon area in remote northern Napa County would be ideal for cannabis. Napa Valley has fog and too many vineyards.
Vineyards can cause problems for cannabis grows that lead to tensions among adjacent property owners. California law prohibits many common herbicides and pesticides from being present on cannabis.
Several local vintners have visited Santa Barbara County. They pointed to Fiddlestix vineyard, which stopped using a preferred fungicide on grapes because of the potential drift to a nearby cannabis farm, leading to grape mildew and loss.
Sklar said that particular cannabis cultivation is located only feet away from Fiddlestix.
“Santa Barbara County shouldn’t have allowed it so close,” he said.
Here in Lake County, Sklar said his cannabis cultivation is about 2,500 feet from vineyards. Pesticide drift hasn’t been a problem.
Napa County has about 45,000 acres of vineyards, compared to 10,000 acres in Lake County. It also has a world-famous reputation for its wines.
Napa Valley Vintners representative Michelle Novi told the Napa County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 17 that 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.
Sklar wants to convince Napa County supervisors that Lake County has gotten commercial cannabis right. He has invited other supervisors for future tours during the harvest season.
“Just gathering information,” Wagenknecht said after the Friday tour. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Whether anyone will ever see anything like it in Napa County remains to be seen.