County board dissolves committee monitoring cannabis licensing activity

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Diane Sieker photo

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to dissolve its Ad-Hoc Commercial Cannabis Committee, which was tasked with monitoring the progress of issuing marijuana sales and cultivation licenses, eliciting pro and con comments from speakers who appeared before the board.

The committee was formed in February, with Supervisors Jeff Hewitt and Karen Spiegel serving as co-chairs. They held two meetings with Transportation and Land Management Agency staff to gauge the effectiveness of the county’s cannabis regulatory framework, approved last fall.

Hewitt advocated a continuation of the committee’s work beyond its Dec. 31 sunset date, urging an expansion of its role to expedite the process of licensing entities for operations in unincorporated communities. Spiegel was lukewarm to the idea, and the balance of the board was unenthusiastic, leaning toward allowing incoming board Chair Manuel Perez to revisit reactivation of the committee in the coming months.

“The ad-hoc committee offers the economy of a smaller group … to listen to all these different sides,” Hewitt said.

He cast the lone vote in favor of extending it and expanding its authority.

Several dozen people addressed the board on the licensing process, with a number of complaints that it was too cumbersome and slow, reflected by the fact that only one permit was issued this year – at the end of the county board meeting. Other speakers focused on the ongoing illegal grows and crime stemming from marijuana cultivation.

“There have been three murders in Anza in 2019, and they’re confirmed pot-related,” Mary Litch said to the board. “Do not reward these people. Making grows legal will not change the inundation of pot grows. Loose dogs and people carrying around guns – that’s what we have in Anza now.”

Jazmyn McCommon with the High Country Growers Association asked for the committee to continue its work and loosen the regulatory noose on small-scale cultivators.

“We do not want unincorporated Riverside County to become a cannabis Mecca. Just recognize what our (Anza Valley) residents have already been doing,” she said. “Small cultivators are being shut out of the (licensing) process.”

The licensing criteria is spelled out in policy B-9, as well as Ordinance No. 671, both of which list the steps which commercial marijuana cultivators and retailers must go through to qualify for conditional use permits and receive consideration for development agreements with the county to operate in unincorporated communities.

During the application window that closed in April, 119 prospects submitted applications for permits, according to the committee. The county tentatively made 50 permits and development agreements available to cultivators and 19 permits available to retailers in 2019.

Conditional use permits each have a 10-year life span and cost $6,000 up front.

The committee said further work is needed to refine the locations where cannabis retail outlets and commercial grows can be established. The board limited cultivation and retail operations to specific areas zoned as residential-agricultural, residential-rural and controlled development. They encompass areas such as the Anza Valley, Sage and unincorporated Winchester.

Complaints about the public benefit scoring system included in the regulatory system were among the issues tackled by the committee, and neither Hewitt or Spiegel supported near-term changes to the scoring criteria, under which prospective cannabis growers and retailers who commit to making infrastructure and other improvements to places where they intend to set up shop receive credits on their permit applications, potentially moving them to the head of the line in vetting by county officials.

The committee said additional time should be spent refining the scoring procedures, with an eye to new “social equity” qualifiers that might “give preferential treatment to those applicants (who) have former marijuana criminal convictions, have a competitive economic disadvantage in submitting applications through the standard planning development review process, those who promote local hiring or investment in disadvantaged communities or face other social or economic barriers to entry into the legal, regulated marketplace.”

Executive Office staff estimated in February that first- and second-year costs to the county for processing permits, carrying out on-site inspections and law enforcement details will total about $3.15 million.

To recoup expenses, “public benefit fees” will be charged, based on the size of each operation.

In the case of an indoor cultivator using between 2,500 and 5,000 square feet, the fee would run $4.50 per square foot. A dispensary operator using 2,500 square feet or less would owe the county $16 per square foot. A manufacturer of cannabis products with over 3,000 square feet dedicated to the business would be required to pay $4.50 per square foot.

The fees will be collected annually, separate from sales tax.