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News - April 4, 2018

Commercially cultivated marijuana gets green light on split vote

by Dave Boyce

In a rare split decision, the Portola Valley Town Council on March 28 voted 3-2 to approve an ordinance, recommended by the Planning Commission, to govern personal and commercial cultivation of marijuana on residential properties in town.

The vote starts a two-step process to adopt an ordinance. The council must vote again and if approved a second time, the ordinance becomes law in 30 days.

Voting for the regulations were councilmen Craig Hughes and Jeff Aalfs and Councilwoman Maryann Derwin. Voting against were Mayor John Richards and Councilwoman Ann Wengert.

The regulations would allow commercial cultivation of up to 12 plants on any residential property in town. The plants must be sold wholesale to a distributor, without curing or further processing. The grower would need permits from the state and the town, whose "cannabis permit" process would include a hearing before the Planning Commission.

The grower has to live on site, provide security and on-site parking, allow unlimited inspections and notify the town of negative developments, the ordinance says. Neighbors and the applicant could appeal to the council any commission decision on a cannabis permit.

The ordinance forbids retail sales in town, meaning any marijuana that's been processed, Town Attorney Cara Silver told the council. Growers can sell cut plants to distributors — not neighbors — and residents can have marijuana products delivered at home, she said. Residents may grow and process up to six plants for personal use, indoors or out.

Processing and outdoor growing cannot take place in unincorporated San Mateo County because the Board of Supervisors passed a moratorium, expiring in December 2018, that restricts commercially-grown marijuana to land zoned for agriculture. Residents can grow up to six plants indoors for personal use. The moratorium forbids "without limitation," manufacturing, testing, micro-businesses and retail sales on county land.

Town values

Planning Commission Chair Nicholas Targ explained the commission's reasoning to allow small-scale commercial cultivation in Portola Valley. "If somebody wants to be a hobbyist or wants to have a very small boutique grow operation where they're doing something really special, we should be mindful of that opportunity and those values that are in the general plan," he said.

The 12-plant limit came in part from a discussion with a county narcotics official and Fire Marshal Denise Enea of the Woodside Fire Protection District, Mr. Targ said. Growing more than 12 plants elevates the risks for fire and nuisance odors and the interest of organized crime, Mr. Targ said he learned.

Twelve plants is also the studied limit in Colorado, he added. "We found that to be compelling," he said.

One plant can generate 16 to 24 ounces of cannabis, Mr. Targ said. With personal plants included, a single residence could produce 27 pounds. Citing the magazine "Marijuana Business Daily," Town Manager Jeremy Dennis said processed marijuana is selling for about $1,300 a pound. A pound yields about 450 joints and requires some 480 gallons of water in a growing cycle of between 8 weeks and six months, he said.

Pro and con

George Andreini, the only non-government-associated resident in the audience, opposed the ordinance's commercial angle. "Why do we need to add exposure of narcotics to our children?" he said. "The commercial aspect, at least, is something you shouldn't even be talking about."

Councilwoman Wengert pondered what problems the commercial provisions would solve; whether they answer needs, concerns or requests of residents; and whether it passed a "test of reasonableness."

The ordinance makes unreasonable demands to attend to the letter of the law, she said. "It would be so difficult, costly and complex for somebody to really want to move forward (with 12 plants) and actually have it work as we intended," she said. "It's way too complicated."

Given the county's ban on processing, Councilman Aalfs said, perhaps testing and some processing should be allowed in Portola Valley. "It feels like we're taking a local issue and creating a burden somewhere else," he said. "I don't think that's good governance."

The town, Ms. Wengert replied, "is taking on a set of risks with no return, even to our residents who might be interested in what you're saying. ... They're not going to apply for all those permits. They're going to probably cut it down and dry it on their site," she said, adding that crime and fire could be the result.

"It's a lot of work for 12 plants," Ms. Derwin said, "and then he can only sell the plant in its plant form to a wholesaler. You know, if it were me, I just wouldn't get a permit."

Mayor Richards noted more than once that six plants grown for personal use would probably meet the residents' needs, and that he's not heard of demands beyond that.

The ordinance is imperfect and may not generate applicants, Councilman Hughes said, but he was against discouraging people from asking about commercial growing.

One problem he said the ordinance may address: residents whose property is not amenable to marijuana cultivation and who might form limited-liability corporations with neighbors with more suitable land. "As long as it's simple enough and small scale," he said.