County halts hemp grows, for now

Some thieves think the new crop is cannabis

254

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors, hearing concerns of theft and odor after the first hemp growing season, placed a 45-day moratorium on operations Dec. 10 to give the county time to revise its ordinance by late January.

The county’s hemp ordinance went into effect in October, which limits operations to 10 acres per parcel and mandates setbacks 100 feet from parcel lines and 1,000 feet from “sensitive sites” such as schools. 

The 2014 Farm Bill allowed hemp to be cultivated for research purposes across the country. Later, the 2018 Farm Bill changed hemp from a controlled substance to an agricultural commodity, opening up a new source of revenue for California farmers.

According to Agricultural Commissioner Karen Overstreet, hemp is grown on 586 acres in San Benito County across 26 sites, for both commercial and research purposes.

Hemp fiber is noted for its strength and durability, and is used for products such as apparel and rope. Although hemp is a strain of cannabis, it has considerably less THC, the compound that produces psychoactive effects when consumed.

Still, the plant has drawn opportunistic thieves from the Bay Area looking to get their hands on cannabis, and not realizing that hemp, while commercially valuable, has scant psychotropic value.

According to San Benito County Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Taylor, certain hemp-growing sites in the county have attracted more attention than others. The 6900 block of San Felipe Road, for instance, had no calls for service from January to Oct. 1, according to Taylor. However, from October to present, sheriff’s deputies responded to 39 calls for service, including 11 arrests and two vehicle pursuits, he said.

The 1100 block of Comstock Road, meanwhile, had two non-hemp-related calls for service between January and October, yet since then it had six calls for service regarding suspicious people around the hemp operation, and “multiple calls and emails from residents in the area,” Taylor said.

Christian Pillsbury of Eden Rift Vineyards and Tony DeRose of DeRose Winery, both located on Cienega Road near a hemp operation, reported an uptick of thefts and trespassing on their properties, in addition to an “overwhelming smell in our tasting room,” Pillsbury said.

Taylor added that many of those arrested were Bay Area residents.

“There was information being disseminated in the Bay Area of an easy way to come down to Hollister and steal cannabis,” Taylor said. “So we had some surprised people when they realized what they were actually taking was hemp.”

A group of residents who live near hemp operations spoke to the supervisors to air their concerns.

Stony Brook Drive resident Ron Parry said neighbors were not alerted to the hemp grow on Comstock Road until after it was planted.

“The smell was so bad people thought their septic tank systems were backing up,” he said. “This is destroying the health, safety and welfare of property owners on Comstock Road. We think the moratorium should not be a matter of months, but a year or more.”

Kevin Moore, who said he is involved with a hemp operation in the county, urged the supervisors to include hemp operators in the work to revise the ordinance. 

“I don’t think a solution to this problem is a moratorium. A moratorium already put a bad taste in a lot of operators’ mouths a few years ago,” he said, referring to a 2016 decision by the supervisors on cannabis cultivation. “You should lean on some of us stakeholders and sit down to address these situations.”

Supervisor Jim Gillio said the ordinance needs to be revised quickly to allow growers to prepare for the springtime planting season. He questioned how the issue of odor could be measured in the ordinance.

“There’s no real objective way to measure the smell,” he said. “It’s all very subjective.”

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz, who was skeptical of a moratorium, said he voted in favor of it to allow the process to move as quickly as possible.

“I’m really concerned about this urgency ordinance that the board is about to encounter,” he said. “I’ve seen it in the past, and it gets real ugly, real fast.”

An ad hoc committee on hemp that includes supervisors Anthony Botelho and Peter Hernandez will work on revising the ordinance, which could include increased setback requirements and odor mitigations. The draft ordinance would then go to the planning commission and head to the supervisors for final approval, likely in February, according to county counsel Barbara Thompson.