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The Grow Tax 

Can Arcata force out big indoor pot farms with a whopping electricity levy?

click to enlarge Arcata medical marijuana grow - PHOTO BY BOB DORAN
  • photo by Bob Doran
  • Arcata medical marijuana grow

In the middle of the night a couple of years ago, two men used a large knife to slice the screen on Bonnie MacRaith's kitchen window.

The men, slight of stature and wearing dark clothes, had cut the screen and were trying to climb through a kitchen window when MacRaith's dog Kenai, a husky cross, began barking and growling.

MacRaith, 65, who lives alone off Alliance Road in Arcata's Westwood area, got out of bed to investigate. She reacted on instinct when she saw the men, making the largest, foulest sound she could muster -- a bellow fit for a horror movie. When the men didn't respond she got louder. And louder.

Finally, exchanging looks, the two backed away from the window and ran.

Authorities later speculated to MacRaith that the crime could have been a marijuana robbery gone awry, because a nearby greenhouse had marijuana growing in it and the smell had permeated the area. MacRaith had no pot in the house.

"I'm a strong person, but that really shook me up," she said.

That's just one of the stories that Arcata Mayor Michael Winkler has heard on his walks through the city as he visits with potential voters before the November election. With no competition for his job on the City Council, he's using this time to research constituent concerns and the campaign for passage of Measure I, which would tax the excessive electricity use typical of large-scale grows.

The more the lanky, curly-haired politician walks, the more discussions he has with residents, the more he's convinced that one of Arcatans' biggest worries is just what the City Council wanted to address when it voted unanimously in July to put Measure I on the ballot.

Many in Arcata are feeling increasingly under siege, Winkler said, because of the proliferation of big, commercial marijuana grows in their neighborhoods.

What was once a peaceable, long-haired hamlet dedicated to environmental responsibility and harmonious coexistence has become in many ways a town armed and anxious, where residents fear for their safety.

"I came up here in 1972 to go to HSU and never has anything even remotely happened to me like this," MacRaith said. "It really made me very sad about Arcata, because it's really has been an exceptional place."

Winkler wants voters pass Measure I to drive growers out -- or at very least get them to pay more taxes to offset their impacts on life in Arcata.

In some neighborhoods, people feel like they are living in a war zone, he said.

"There are attack dogs, all kinds of cash and guns, and they feel like they have some very hostile and dangerous neighbors," Winkler said. "They felt like it was a safe and comfortable and friendly neighborhood, but there's been this massive change."

Measure I would impose a 45 percent utility tax on customers who use more than six times a baseline amount established by the California Public Utilities Commission. In Arcata, the baseline works out to about 582 kilowatt hours per month in the summer for a house with electric heat, and 1,002 kwh in the winter. For a house with gas heat, the allowance works out to 360 kwh monthly in the summer and 408 in the winter, according to figures provided by the CPUC.

The city points out in its election materials that the average household uses twice the baseline amount, so those taxed would have to use three times the average.

"With the threshold we have, very few citizens would have this level of consumption," Winkler said.

Initially, the tax might affect 600 or so households. According to Pacific, Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman Brittany McKannay, there are roughly 10,000 electric meters in Arcata, with slightly more than 600 rising above the Measure I threshold.

That's roughly 6 percent of metered households in the city. The measure would exempt people already getting special electric rates for medical reasons, such as needing life-support equipment, City Attorney Nancy Diamond wrote in an analysis of Measure I. No exemptions would be offered for people getting special low-income rates or for very large households.

According to Diamond, the tax would generate roughly $1.2 million a year based on 2011 usage figures, although the city expects that figure to decline over time as big growers move out or change their ways.

Offsetting some of that income, Arcata would have to pay a one-time charge to PG&E, estimated at no more than $650,000, to implement the tax, which would be collected by the utility and then passed on to the city.

But according to Mayor Winkler, it's not about the money. If the measure works the way he hopes, the large tax will prove so discouraging that commercial growers will shut down or just leave.

That prospect has worried some in neighboring Eureka, where Councilwoman Linda Atkins said there's already a significant grow-house problem.

Concerned that growers may relocate from Arcata to Eureka, Atkins has led efforts to get a similar tax on Eureka's ballot in 2014. The idea has been referred to the city's Energy Committee for analysis.

By making it clear such a plan is in the works, Atkins hopes Eureka can ward off any growers who might be looking for alternative locations.

In Arcata, Winkler is careful to point out that he's not against medical marijuana. In fact, if growers stay within the legal limits for growing medical marijuana in the city, they wouldn't break the 600 percent threshold set forth in Measure I, he said.

No organized opposition has emerged to Measure I, which unlike some other proposed taxes, needs only a majority vote to pass.

Instead, anonymous grumblers have posted to online forums, where they say the tax will kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Among those who have come out publicly against the measure is Mark Sailor, owner of the human-powered taxi service Kineticab, who had tried to run for City Council this year but failed to submit enough viable signatures to make the ballot.

Sailor says the measure discriminates against the same growers who have helped make marijuana a massive engine for Arcata's economy.

"It's a hey-get-the-hell-out-of-our-town-law," he said. "The whole thing makes me crazy."

If marijuana has brought prosperity to Arcata, Winkler expects that could still continue without huge grows that rattle peaceful neighborhoods. And for her part, MacRaith would be happy to see less of the massive flow of cash that she fears has fostered a greed-crazed culture in Arcata.

"I don't think it's worth it," she said. "We can find better, more creative ways to make money that can benefit a broader spectrum of people."

 

James Faulk is a freelance writer based in Eureka. 

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