County supervisors delay approving hemp ordinance to make amendments

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Diane Sieker photo

Seeing a need for amendments, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Sept. 15, postponed approval of a series of regulations on where and how hemp growers can operate within unincorporated areas of Riverside County.

“I understand we’re facilitating an industry that has to grow crops, but we have to think about residences,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said. “I’m leaning toward increasing the distance between a crop and residences. I want to make sure we’re protecting those folks.”

The proposed Industrial Hemp Cultivation and Manufacturing Ordinance, No. 348.4931, was the last public hearing on the board’s lengthy agenda, and supervisors expressed reservations even before a staff report was delivered.

Supervisor Karen Spiegel said she doubted the proposed 1,000-foot buffer between residential areas and outdoor hemp cultivation sites would be sufficient.

“That may not be enough when you’re talking about the smell and where children are present,” Spiegel said.

Supervisor Chuck Washington acknowledged being confused by parts of the regulatory framework but did not say he opposed it.

Several farmers testified that hemp grows might divert water in places where it’s already scarce for other long-standing agricultural uses, while corporate hemp industry representatives lauded the ordinance for establishing clear guidelines and asked for immediate approval.

After a brief debate, the board agreed in a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Jeff Hewitt out of the chamber, to defer action until several revisions are made to the measure, setting another hearing date for Oct. 20.

The measure would supersede all previous regulations and establish controls on plot arrangements, including setbacks from public rights of way and schools, tied to both indoor and outdoor hemp grows, which are legal countywide but require registration and licensing through the county Office of the Agricultural Commissioner.

A total of three hearings were conducted by the county Planning Commission before the proposed ordinance being submitted to the board, which in June 2019 ended all remaining prohibitions on hemp farming in unincorporated communities.

The main difference between hemp and unadulterated marijuana is the tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC – content. Hemp leaves have about three-tenths of 1% of the compounds contained in cannabis leaves, according to the county Office of County Counsel.

Advocates of hemp production and research said its properties have proven benefits in treating some skin and heart disorders. It’s also used in clothing and other commercial applications.

Unlike cannabis, hemp is not federally designated as a controlled substance, and production is permitted on Native American lands, under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians began permitting hemp grows near Mountain Center in January.

Countywide, there are 110 registered growers, as well as 13 licensed seed breeders, according to the Transportation and Land Management Agency.

The proposed ordinance recognizes that hemp cultivation is heavy on water usage, and for that reason, the measure would specifically prohibit all grows in the Santa Margarita River Watershed, which encompasses all unincorporated space around Temecula and Winchester. Grows would also be illegal in Aguanga, Anza and Sage, where water recharging is difficult because of the uneven terrain.

“The Santa Margarita River Watershed has a heightened sensitivity related to water usage and water quality, resulting in a greater need to ensure that large-scale groundwater extraction is better managed,” according to a TLMA statement posted to the board’s agenda.

Other requirements under the proposed ordinance include: indoor and outdoor hemp cultivation must be a minimum of 1,000 feet from all schools, day care centers, public parks and youth centers and indoor hemp grows must be inside fully enclosed spaces and must be a minimum of 25 feet from the nearest adjoining residential or commercial plot line. In specifically zoned areas, covering most of the county, outdoor hemp cultivation must be set back a minimum of 100 feet from an adjoining plot boundary, and farther depending on the size of the operation, which can range from five to more than 160 acres.

All indoor cultivation sites must rely on 20% renewable energy for production and all indoor and outdoor sites must have water conservation and recapturing mechanisms to “minimize use of water where feasible.” All sites must receive previous scrutiny by their local water agency to show that they do not pose a risk of excess or wasteful water consumption, and all sites must install lighting systems that do not disturb neighbors or use methods that shield neighboring properties from “light trespass.”

The ordinance further proposes limitations on hours of operation to reduce noise, and hemp production would not be permitted to be co-located with cannabis grows. However, to date, the board has not authorized a single commercial marijuana farm in an unincorporated area.