Update: The Hemp Advisory Group has now been disbanded

Update: The Hemp Advisory Group has now been disbanded. The following summary of their actions and what’s at stake from a former member.

The latest on hemp September 2019

The politics

Unlike cannabis hemp is considered agriculture which embodies this crop with all of the rights as traditional agriculture, some of these rights are:

Right to farm in agricultural zone areas DA, LIA, LEA.

Right to drill a well with no water availability studies

Right to use water at “agronomic rates” from rivers and streams with riparian water rights

Right to “process” on site their own product in one conversion without a permit (more on this later)

It is the County’s position that agriculture is exempt from CEQA

A permit is not required for any agricultural crop. Therefore, if a permit is required to grow hemp it would set a precedent which could be applied to other agriculture in the future. Agriculture is allowed in all zoning types currently. The Farm Bureau is applying maximum pressure to avoid permitting of hemp. The farm bureau runs Sonoma County.

No other crop has setback requirements, water availability requirements, and so on. Putting any such requirements on hemp would also set a precedent for other crops. Again, maximum pressure from the Farm Bureau to prevent this.

There is some division in the Farm Bureau as some grape farmers are concerned about grape taint or odors near tasting rooms. However most grape growers are siding with hemp growers, concerned that any standards which are imposed on hemp (and may someday be applied to them) are a bigger threat than a nearby hemp grow.

Cannabis growers are pushing for no setbacks for hemp as a way to reduce current setbacks in the new cannabis ordinance. They will make the argument that it is the same plant with the same smell.

Federal requirements

Currently Hemp is regulated by the States. The Federal Government requires each state to come up with a program for growing hemp in those states

California State requirements

This is a work in progress. Currently there are few requirements. The grower must register with the County Agricultural Commissioner,  pay a fee (most of which goes to the state), grow only “certified strains”, and subject to laboratory testing 30 days before harvest to test THC levels. Plants testing above the level of .03 must be destroyed. Commercial hemp farms must be at least 1/10th acre but there is no maximum size.

Other Counties

Other California Counties are all over the map. On one extreme are Counties which have no regulations at all. In these Counties Hemp is currently being grown with no requirements.  Kern is one such County with 7,000 acres of unregulated hemp. A large number of Counties currently are operating under a moratorium, as is Sonoma County. In these Counties only “institutions” may currently grow hemp.  In Sonoma County, Shone Farm currently has a hemp crop about 1 acre in size located near their vineyard. These “moratorium Counties” are working on hemp regulations. According to Tony Linegar (the Agricultural Commissioner) Some Counties in the Central Valley have included setback requirements. Merced and San Joaquin have 200 ft from property line and 1,000 ft from sensitive uses.

Sonoma County Draft Proposals

The Hemp regulation has two parts, where it can be grown and what requirements must be met. We began the work with the WHERE part. We took each zoning individually and came up with an assortment of choices for that zoning. Each zone has a table with choices ranging from grow anywhere with no restrictions, to commercial hemp cannot be grown at all. In residential zones (AR and RR) most of the choices are “yes you can grow”, but with setback restrictions or minimum parcel size, one choice requires CUP. In the Agricultural zones, the only choices are; allow with no restrictions and allow with 600 ft setback. In RRD there are also only two choices; allow with no restrictions and require CUP with exclusion in the 5 impaired watersheds. The planning commission and supervisors will pick and choose from these choices on the chart. Tony will recommend one choice for each zoning. I do not know what he will do with AR and RR but suspect he will recommend with some restrictions. He is recommending no restrictions in all other zoning.

The rest of the issues are proposed to be dealt with via best management practices (BMPs). These are suggestions such as “Consider establishing a 200 ft buffer strip between the hemp crop and neighboring crops such as grapes, occupied dwellings, and schools.” Or “After initiation of flowering consider monitoring crop weekly and removing male plants”  “Consider planting a hedgerow or other crop in buffer strip” These would be voluntary and are only suggestions to deal with compatibility issues.

The processing piece is still in flux. Tony is trying to determine which processes are inherent in the base zoning as ag processes, and which are more like manufacturing which would require a CUP. For example a grape grower can go from grapes to juice without a CUP but to go from grapes to juice to wine they need a CUP. A hemp grower would need a CUP to do extraction, but could do the following: drying (including using heat dryers and blowers), trimming, curing, storage, grading and packaging. The following is undecided: hammermill and pelletizing.

Buildings and greenhouses will be subject to the base zoning as to size and setbacks.

Enforcement is another issue. There needs to be a way to prevent fraud. For this the following method will be used. Grower registers and provides the County with a surety bond to cover the cost of any necessary abatement. After planting a site plan with cultivars identified will be submitted to the County. Ag department will come out and measure via drone (plant count) to be sure site plan is correct. If the grower removes any plants (such as males) they must submit a voluntary destruction report to the ag department. Any plants removed without the report will be considered (THC) cannabis and the grower will have his permit revoked and be subject to cannabis enforcement program. If any plants test at 10% THC at any time, the crop will be considered (THC) cannabis. When THC testing is done according to the State guidelines (outlined above) each cultivar will be tested, any unusual looking plants will be tested. If code enforcement is called out to a hemp grow and it is not registered with the ag commissioner (before planting) it will be considered (THC) cannabis.

The timeline

Mid to late September – Tony releases draft regulation to hemp board members for comment

October? (date not final) Tony holds informational meeting at the planning commission with just the commissioners (not the BZA)

November 7 Planning Commission votes on regulations to go to the BOS

December 16 First reading of the ordinance at the BOS public hearing

From here changes will be made per the Board’s recommendations Expect the ordinance to be in place before moratorium expires in April.

What can you do?

Mobilize to put pressure on BOS to keep commercial hemp out of residential zones. According to the general plan, the primary use of AR and RR is residential. Any other uses are subordinate. Commercial hemp growing is not compatible with residential use. If hemp is allowed in this zoning, it will give cannabis a foot in the door.

Voluntary BMP’s are not adequate. Request bright line standards so everyone knows what can and can’t be done and where

We cannot allow yet another commercial crop to deplete our water resources in RRD. These are resource zones where protection and conservation are the primary uses in the general plan. RRD is not an agricultural zone. Many of these areas have sparse water, narrow roads which do not meet fire safe standards and are long distances from services. We are out of water in many areas, just because we made the mistake of allowing vineyards to expand in these areas doesn’t mean we need to make the problems worse with another crop. It’s time to draw the line. If not now, when?