Saturday, January 16, 2016

As Supes Move Closer to Marijuana Ordinance, the Planning Commission Expresses Outrage

Posted By on Sat, Jan 16, 2016 at 11:22 AM

click to enlarge Planning Commission Chair Robert Morris is "outraged" at the county planning staff's draft ordinance.
  • Planning Commission Chair Robert Morris is "outraged" at the county planning staff's draft ordinance.
A new outdoor medical marijuana draft ordinance has been released in advance of next week’s board of supervisors meeting, and it contains the stiffer restrictions on canopy sizes and cultivation in timber lands that supervisors have asked for since their review began at the beginning of the year.

It’s a turn away from some of the supervisors’ original reactions to an October draft, as well as a reversal of the direction the planning commission took with the ordinance, which was decidedly more grower-friendly.

According to the most recent draft, no new medical marijuana grows will be allowed on timber production zone lands — a sticking point for environmental groups. But supervisors also raised the size of grows requiring discretionary permits to 5,000 square feet, more than doubling limit recommended by staff. (The Lost Coast Outpost’s Ryan Burns gives a more detailed look at the board’s discussion on many of the specifics covered by the ordinance.)

The board will discuss the draft Jan. 19, and, if supervisors follow staff recommendations, it will be set for adoption on Jan. 26, giving it barely enough time to pass before the current March 1 deadline after which the county would have to cede local medical marijuana control to the state.

The supervisors’ limits, as the Journal has reported, are a strategy to align the ordinance with its associated mitigated negative declaration, a document that prevents the board from conducting a lengthy environmental review. The mitigated negative declaration was based on that of the state water board’s environmental program from last year, and, after the planning commission finished its review of the ordinance, planning staff warned that the commission’s changes would negate the declaration. Environmental groups all but threatened to sue, which would’ve sunk the effort to enact the ordinance by March 1.

The supervisors’ general concurrence with the staff is sure to be rankling the planning commission, which, at its Jan. 7 meeting — the first since staff consolidated the commission’s 10-meeting endurance run — expressed outrage at the staff report.

Though the move would have had “no binding force or effect,” in the words of Commissioner Lee Ulansey, he and Chair Robert Morris tried really, really, really hard to raise their hands and say they had no confidence in the county’s planning and building department. This, despite the fact that the subject appeared nowhere on the meeting’s agenda.

At the end of the meeting, Morris raised concerns over the report, saying the topic of the draft’s adherence to the mitigated negative declaration was brought up multiple times during the commission review.

Commissioner Ben Shepherd said he was disappointed to read in the staff report that the commission's direction on timber production zones was determined by staff to be out of line with the general plan. He would’ve liked to know that before it was submitted to the supervisors, he said.

Ulansey gave more vague complaints — which he chalked up to “deliberate bias” on the part of planning staff — accusing them of “misrepresenting and not completely representing public testimony at public meetings, not following through on our votes.”

When staff first introduced the draft ordinance in October, supervisors Ryan Sundberg and Estelle Fennell, who’d served on the medical marijuana focus group, expressed surprise and disappointment, saying it drifted away from an ordinance prepared by local political action committee California Cannabis Voice Humboldt. At the Jan. 7 meeting, Ulansey suggested the planning commission, in its review, was just trying to make the supervisors happy by making it look more like the private group's draft. “[The board] made it pretty clear that wasn’t the direction they want to go and I think we all heard that direction and tried to pursue it.”

(Whether the commission's role is to please the supervisors or review draft legislation for legality and adherence with the county’s general plan and other codes is up for debate.)

Commissioners Kevin McKenny and Alan Bongio also expressed disappointment in the draft submitted to supervisors, but the board has mostly been in agreement over even the more controversial points since they've been reviewing it. Sundberg, apparently the last holdout over the prohibition of new grows on timber production zones, acquiesced on Tuesday, and the board voted unanimously to include the restriction.

But the planning commission’s weirdness continued. Morris pointed with both hands at empty chairs where planning staff had sat during the commission hearings on the ordinance and asked, “Does the commission still have confidence, in the staff that sit at those tables and gave us their advice during the 10 meetings we had? Because I certainly have a big problem with trust and I think to a certain extent it’s almost a breach of the public trust.”

This prompted Shepherd to weigh in, saying he was uncomfortable taking any kind of vote on an item that wasn’t on the agenda, citing the author of California’s public meeting law. “I think we’re kind of trouncing all over Ralph M. Brown here,” he said, adding later that he thought the planning staff in question deserved to be present to respond to the commission’s allegations.

County Counsel Jeffrey S. Blanck agreed, mostly. “Voting and all that nature should be on an item that the public would be able to come in and see and hear what you have to say, and know that you’re going to talk about it,” Blanck said, adding that another commissioner’s suggestion to put the item on a future agenda wasn’t “trying to muzzle the commissioners in any way.”

But Morris and Ulansey — despite their own previous championship of transparency laws — persisted.

“I did not hear the counselor say that we were in violation of the Ralph M. Brown act,” Morris said.

“My recommendation,” Blanck reiterated, “because it appears you’re all interested, is to put it on the agenda item. That’s the safest way to go.”

Morris continued, “This has nothing to do with the public. This has to do with the staff. This is an internal staff matter that the commission has with the staff.”

“But unfortunately,” Blanck responded,” the Brown Act puts a label on you that when you’re here together, acting in concert, it’s required to be noticed to the public. It can be housekeeping, it can be whatever. The topic isn’t really the concern of the Brown Act.”

Ulansey suggested that the hands-raising was simply a straw-vote — routine for the commission to gauge support — but commissioner Noah Levy also expressed concern, saying he wasn’t aware of the commission taking a straw vote on an item that wasn’t on the agenda.

Eventually, Morris gave in. “The purpose for my question for the raise of hands was to figure out if it was a significant issue to agendize,” he said. The commissioners seemed to agree that, after 30 minutes of discussing the issue, yes, it was worth discussing. The commission will take up the planning staff’s report as an agenda item at the Jan. 21 meeting.

Meanwhile, Rob Wall, the county’s recently appointed interim planning director, said he’s taking the commission’s allegations seriously. At the meeting he told them, “That kind of accusation definitely raises my blood pressure. … Certainly my first planning commission meeting getting a vote of no confidence on some of my key staff members isn’t probably the best way to go.”

Reached by phone on Friday, Wall said that “the planning commission obviously does not have the authority to govern personnel matters — that is my job.”

He said he’s been looking into the commissioners’ allegations, focusing on the staff’s determination after the hearings that the commissioners’ recommendations would exceed the mitigated negative declaration. “With regard to not following instructions, I’m doing what everybody else who has some interest in this process is doing: reviewing the votes and the documentation. We’ll have that discussion, with the findings, on the 21st.”

He added that none of the commissioners have reached out to him about specific directions that his staff ignored, though he welcomed that sort of input. But he indicated he supported the staff report. “We have an obligation to the board — as do our legal staff — to let them know what we professionally find legally defensible.”
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Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth has been an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal since 2013.

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