FOG Update – Cannabis Setbacks to Parks (Trails), Schools and Residences


FOG Update – Cannabis Setbacks to Parks (Trails), Schools and Residences

First, let FOG acknowledge the difficult times we are in with the coronavirus. We hope everyone can stay safe and quarantined to slow the spread. Unfortunately, the County engine chugs on and thus the need for an update.

We have mentioned in past updates that the trend at the County is moving towards ministerial permitting of cannabis applications administered by the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office instead of Permit Sonoma. We have now learned that one County staff person, Niki Berrocal, is responsible for writing the new regulations that will be submitted to the Board of Supervisors for approval sometime this year.

This means that it is time for YOU as a resident of Sonoma County and a concerned citizen to take action to protect your neighborhood and your parks, trails and schools from the negative impacts of cannabis projects.

Please write an email to

and CC: Supervisor Lynda Hopkins (,
Leo Chyi (, Supervisor James Gore ( and Jenny Chamberlain (

The two supervisors above are on the Ad Hoc committee that was formed to handle re-writing the cannabis ordinance. Unfortunately the cannabis industry has been able to have undue influence on how the ordinance revision has been handled so far. This is your chance to have a say in the process.

Below is the text of a memo that FOG wrote regarding our position on setbacks for cannabis. You could use this information to format your email, or if you don’t have time to compose, just write that you are concerned that cannabis projects have setbacks that are adequate to protect residences, parks, trails and schools. 1000′ is a minimum distance to offset some of the downsides of cannabis.


Language in the current ordinance regarding setbacks:

Outdoor cultivation sites shall be setback a minimum of one thousand feet (1,000′) from a school providing education to K-12 grades, a public park, childcare centers, or an alcohol or drug treatment facility. The distance shall be measured in a straight line from the property line of the protected site to the closest property line of the parcel with the cannabis cultivation use. This park setback may be reduced with a use permit when it is determined that an actual physical equivalent separation exists due to topography, vegetation or slope, that no offsite impacts will occur, and that the cannabis operation is not accessible or visible from the park.”

Friends of Graton, a grassroots group, respectfully submits the following recommendations as an aid to the county as it entertains applications for cannabis grows and facilities adjacent to park lands.

We believe that exceptions to park setbacks should be just that – exceptions, rarely made and only after full consideration of the impact on the public lands. There are tens of thousands of acres of arable land in Sonoma County that are not near parks. In our view, it is not good public policy to lessen protection of publicly funded and publicly enjoyed parks for private profit, when that profit can be made in many other places.

We believe that the purpose of the setback requirement was twofold: to remove an attractive nuisance from the view of children and to assure the public’s continued enjoyment of the lands it has and is paying for. To that end, FOG urges a standard of zero impacts on parks from cannabis operations.

We believe our recommendations will further the mission of Sonoma County Regional Parks, which reads, in part: “preserves irreplaceable natural and cultural resources, and offers opportunities for recreation and education to enhance the quality of life and well-being of residents and visitors to Sonoma County.” Impacts from cannabis operations do not support this mission.

Following are our recommendations:

  • We strongly support the ordinance’s requirement that the 1,000-foot setback be “measured in a straight line from the properly line of the protected site to the closest property line of the parcel with cannabis cultivation use.” Applicants cannot be allowed to argue the setback be measured from park features, trails or facilities, or from cannabis operations instead of property lines of the subject parcel.

It is important to maintain the 1,000-foot setback from park boundaries, even in areas where the park is currently undeveloped. Regional Parks may in the future want to expand or enhance the park by installing new facilities or new trails in the currently undeveloped park area. The public should be able to enjoy those features and still have the benefit of the 1,000-foot buffer zone.

  • The language of the ordinance in allowing exceptions should be strictly enforced. The ordinance requires that an “actual physical equivalent separation exists” for a reduction in the buffer zone. That means the “actual physical equivalent separation” must be in place and exist prior to an application, not constructed immediately prior to or to as part of the application. Applicants cannot promise to plant trees, place fences, create berms or change landscaping to meet this requirement.

  • The use of vegetation as a reason to reduce the setback requirement should be viewed with extreme caution. Vegetation is mutable and impermanent. Trees and shrubs can die or change from disease, saturated ground, earth movement, trimming, fire, drought or logging. Deciduous vegetation will not provide cover year-round. If the “vegetation” that provided the “actual physical equivalent separation” disappears for any reason, it could take years for new vegetation to be large enough to replace the lost vegetation.

  • A setback reduction should only be considered with mixed light grows, defined as greenhouse cultivation with odor filters. No setback variance should be considered for outdoor grows. It is well documented that even when hidden by trees, unacceptably strong odors from outdoor grows can be detected more than 1,000 feet away.

  • The choice of cannabis operation lights and lighting should be weighed against the potentially negative impact on animal and bird species. Multiple motion detector lights should have minimum duration even when the park is closed to visitors due to potential impacts on wildlife. Multiple studies point to the ill effects of night lighting, particularly LED lighting, on bird migration and foraging. Federal environmental laws protect migrating bird species from even accidental “takes.” Impacting these species runs counter to the purpose of public parks.

  • Security fencing should be placed to avoid wildlife corridors such as creek beds, wetlands, riparian areas and natural corridors through developed lands. Blocking animal access is counter to the purpose of any park.

  • No light, noise or odor associated with cannabis cultivation and/or facilities should be detectable on park lands. An analysis of potential light, odor and noise pollution should be conducted before any setback exception is granted. The odor analysis should include health risks from volatile organic compounds associated with cannabis, such as terpenes. This is important because the travel of noise, odor and allergens can vary widely, subject to weather wind and humidity.

    • Traffic to the cannabis operation should not share any entry or maintenance roads with a park. If a park road allows direct access from the park to the cannabis operation, it will facilitate access to the grow, particularly by people on foot or bikes. This raises liability issues for Regional Parks.

    • If an exception to the park setback rule is requested, the planner and a representative of Regional Parks should be required to make an on-site visit as part of the pre-evaluation of the application. This visit would determine only if a requested setback reduction conforms to the cannabis ordinance and does not mean the setback will be approved. The visit should occur when deciduous vegetation is bare.

    • If a project adjacent to a park is approved, the burden lies with the applicant to prevent any impact from the cannabis operation on the park. If an approved cannabis operation subsequently produces a noise, odor, traffic or other impact on the park, the applicant must cease operations until it can be certified that the violations are corrected.

    Anna Ransome for Friends of Graton (FOG)