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March 24, 2023

Cannabis Grow Proposal Heads Back to Planning Commission

In a business matter that’s highlighted a tussle between Planning Commissioners and County of Santa Cruz staff, the Commission has been handed a second chance to properly deny a cannabis cultivation operation proposal in Upper Zayante.

Local residents are trying to stop it, arguing it will use too much water and cause other problems—like increased police presence and rats.

On Tuesday, after staff reported the Commission hadn’t acted properly, the Board of Supervisors considered granting the applicant a new hearing by taking jurisdiction.

In his presentation to the board, County Resource Planner Michael Sapunor noted after public hearings in December and March, the zoning administrator gave the go-ahead for a marijuana farm with 20,000 square feet of canopy at 375 Old Mount Road.

Sapunor said the business would have to follow conditions in an archaeological report, use temporary shade house covers on the buildings and install hedges. They’d also have to secure a cannabis business license, he added.

But after hearing testimony from residents who worried about a variety of factors—chief among them water scarcity—the Planning Commission denied the project 4-1.

In July the applicant appealed that decision.

The options before the board this week: (1) take no action and allow the project to die; (2) remand it to the Planning Commission; or (3) take jurisdiction.

“Staff is recommending that your board take jurisdiction,” Sapunor said.

Noting the property is in the area he represents, Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson made a motion to send the matter back to the Planning Commission.

Supervisor Zach Friend seconded the motion, suggesting the board should be careful about taking matters into its own hands.

He said there were “clear concerns” with environmental impacts at the site and noted local governments are allowed to deny these sorts of projects if they want to.

The motion passed unanimously.

Trevor Luxon, a lawyer for the applicant, said residents had used inflated water-use figures. He said the Planning Commission had acted improperly because it didn’t make any applicable “findings” about why the cannabis grow shouldn’t win approval.

Bill Parkin, of Wittwer and Parkin LLP, speaking on behalf of residents via the “Old Mount Protectors” group, said the Planning Commission acted properly.

He urged the board to uphold their decision, to maintain the “integrity” of the process.

“This isn’t just exchanging one crop for another,” he said. “Cannabis is highly regulated.”

Parkin suggested the facility would cause significant environmental impacts.

He agreed there had been a rift between staff and the Planning Commission, but blamed the County for the issues.

“I think the Planning Commission did an admirable job,” he said, commenting on the “push and pull between staff and the Commission.”

M. Allen Hopper, of JRG Attorneys at Law in Monterey, also spoke on behalf of the applicant. He said the Planning Commission didn’t cite state environmental laws, although they vaguely hinted at sustainability concerns.

“That’s a pretty technical determination,” he said, asking the board to take jurisdiction if only to allow a hearing on whether CEQA environmental rules would factor in or not.

Several neighbors questioned the accuracy of the applicants’ water data and told the boards of problems with their wells going dry.

Jayson Madani, the owner of Room Real Estate, spoke on behalf of the applicants—Aaron Madani, of Green Coast LLC and Massood Madani, of Old Mount Farm LLC—and noted he’s personally related.

After selling around 2,000 properties in the area, he’s become intimately aware of all the illegal marijuana growers in the region, he said.

“It’s abundant,” he said, urging the board not to penalize people trying to operate legally.

He also attempted to quell concerns about marijuana operations harming property values, sharing that he just sold a cannabis property in Boulder Creek for $2.4 million.

Aaron Madani said they are truly committed to green operations, pointing out every business uses some amount of water.

“It’s always going to be something that’s necessary,” he said. “We’re definitely looking to stay sustainable and do things the best way.”

Drew Penner
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected]


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