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March 30, 2020

Proposal concerns hemp growers

Planning commission recommends changes to ordinance

Some hemp growers are telling San Benito County officials that a proposed ordinance puts unreasonable restrictions on the burgeoning industry.

Most recently, at a Jan. 15 county planning commission meeting, hemp growers pointed to language in the proposed ordinance that prohibits hemp operations within the San Benito Wine/Hospitality Priority Area, an area that encompasses roughly a quarter of the county. Growers could, however, operate within the area provided they obtain a conditional use permit through the county, which is a lengthy process that could force farmers to miss the next growing season, some said.

Russell Dotson said he grew hemp on his land at Oak Hill Ranch in Paicines this past year.

“We were a responsible grow that caused no issues for the county or the public, including the sheriff’s office,” he said. “Yet this season my farm falls within the Wine/Hospitality Priority Area, and now I’m at risk of not being able to farm hemp this season, or at least not able to start the farming process.”

Dotson said hemp farmers need to begin reserving seeds now, as there is expected to be a shortage statewide due to a more “active” season.

“The hemp and wine industries can cohabitate in the county, but to give such preferential treatment to one crop over the other is not right,” he said. “What could be next, the smelly garlic?”

Kevin Moore, who is involved with a hemp operation in the county, said the conditional use permit process could take up to two years. Farmers need to begin planning their crops and reserving seeds by the end of January, he added, in order to be on schedule for the May/June planting period.

“These farmers don’t have two years to figure out the next crop,” he said.

Hemp is on the radar of county officials after they received a number of complaints about smell, crime and traffic following the end of the first growing season late in 2019. Eden Rift Vineyards and DeRose Winery, located on Cienega Road near a hemp operation, both reported an uptick of thefts and trespassing on their properties, as well as an overwhelming smell of drying hemp in their tasting rooms.

Christian Pillsbury of Eden Rift Vineyards said the last three months have been “catastrophically bad.”

“We have no problem with cultivation of hemp in San Benito,” he said. “For us, it’s the impacts of crime, trash, stench and other negative externalities that have hit right close to home.”

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 San Benito County Board of Supervisors enacted a 45-day moratorium on hemp operations Dec. 10 to give the county time to revise its ordinance. That moratorium was extended for another 10 months on Jan. 14, but is expected to end sometime in February once the supervisors approve a revised ordinance.

Planning Commissioner Robert Gibson suggested removing the prohibition of hemp operations within the wine area as well as the conditional use permit requirements, and instead allow the industry to operate at least a mile away from wineries and other hospitality sites.

“If somebody has to get a (conditional use permit), you might as well just ban them,” he said.

Among the changes to the ordinance, the distance of hemp sites between residential properties is proposed to increase from 100 feet to 1,000 feet.

The revised ordinance, which was unanimously recommended by the commissioners with Gibson’s amendment, will now head to the supervisors for consideration.

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