Outdoor marijuana grow ordinance up for debate; Planning Commission seeks public input before making changes

The Humboldt County Planning Commission is seeking public input at today's meeting ordinance that would limit crop sizes of outdoor medical marijuana grows.

Under the proposed land use ordinance -- which would amend the Coastal and Inland Zoning Regulations sections of the county code -- qualified patients would be limited to five mature plants with a total canopy area of up to 50 square feet on small land parcels ranging from a half-acre to five acres.

While the ordinance was drafted as result of complaints from select neighborhoods, Commissioner Lee Ulansey said its effect on the rest of the county should be taken under consideration.

"The biggest challenge is going to be coming up with an ordinance that works in all parts of the county," Ulansey said. "With the laws being what they are, our challenge is to find language and make compromises that will allow us to apply the same rules to significantly different parts of the county."

The draft ordinance would also prohibit outdoor grows on property smaller than a half-acre, but those patients would still be able to have indoor grow operations of up to five plants.

County staff were directed to draft the ordinance in October after the medical marijuana subcommittee -- which includes 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg and 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace -- received complaints of outdoor grows from areas across the county.

"There are neighborhoods in Willow Creek that have marijuana grows and it's affecting other neighbors," Sundberg said. "Some people don't like the smell, some are allergic to the smell, some can't sell their homes."

Under the ordinance, plants must be set back at least 20 feet from neighboring structures and 600 feet from public areas such as schools and parks. Should any patients grow more than five plants, Lovelace said that neighbors would be responsible for reporting it to local law enforcement.

"These are small enough that it shouldn't be a big deal, as long as a person is trying to be a good neighbor," Lovelace said.

Sundberg said that the ordinance deals with land use issues and does not affect California's 1996 medical marijuana law, Proposition 215.

"There are appropriate places to farm and appropriate places not to farm," Sundberg said. "It's not saying that they can't grow, but where and what size is appropriate to have marijuana outside."

Ulansey said that community input will determine whether the commission will alter any of the proposed restrictions.

"It has the potential to affect a lot of communities in both positive and negative ways," Ulansey said. "We really need to hear from people."

With the issue carrying a "great deal of controversy with both pros and cons," Commissioner David Edmonds said that he is waiting to hear what the public has to say before making any alterations.

"I try to never make up my mind until I've heard all of the public testimony," Edmonds said. "The intent of this discussion is to give people the opportunity to speak on the issue. I expect it is going to be a busy crowd."

After the commission's review, the ordinance will be sent to the board for final approval.

Lovelace said that another ordinance must be drafted to address outdoor grow restrictions on parcels of land larger than five acres.

"There are so many different pieces of this issue, so it can't be lumped into one ordinance," Lovelace said. "The county has taken these things up separately to address each one more appropriately."

If you go:

What: Planning Commission meeting

When: 6 p.m. today

Where: Supervisors' chamber, first floor, Humboldt County Courthouse, 825 Fifth St., Eureka

The full agenda can be viewed online at http://co.humboldt.ca.us/planning/commission/default.asp?pg=plan_comm_archives.asp

Will Houston can be reached 707-441-0504 or whouston@times-standard.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/Will_S_Houston.