County wrestles with how to handle marijuana grows

hemp leaf

A proposed ordinance regulating outdoor medical marijuana growing is unlikely to change the status quo in Humboldt County. Pot plantations large and small will continue to dot the landscape as growers cash in on the marijuana gold rush, which, by conservative estimates, pumps more than $400 million into the local economy.

However, the ordinance will give law enforcement a new tool for dealing with specific growers that are creating nuisances in neighborhoods, Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg told the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee (McKMAC) at its meeting last week.

The McKMAC gathered on Wednesday, April 24 at the Azalea Conference Room on the campus of McKinleyville Middle School to discuss the ordinance. The committee’s discussion was wide-ranging on the topic of marijuana as the McKMAC members and those in attendance talked about what it’s like to live in an area dominated by the marijuana industry,

Current rules

In McKinleyville, most of the marijuana is grown indoors, with grow houses stretching from one end of town to the other.

Those who follow the county’s indoor marijuana growing ordinance must contain their plants within an area no larger than 50 square feet and no taller than 10 feet. The lighting cannot exceed 1200 watts. Only one grow is allowed per household. The ordinance does not place limits on the number of plants, but simply limits the square footage. When it comes to outdoor grows, the county doesn’t have an ordinance yet.

The proposed county outdoor cultivation ordinance is in response grows that create problems in neighborhoods.

Sundberg told the McKMAC that the ordinance was spurred by complaints from Willow Creek, located about 49 miles east of McKinleyville.

There was a couple living in a residential area where their neighbors had pot plants growing right up against their property line. The residents are allergic to the smell of marijuana and they couldn’t even open their doors or windows. When they contacted law enforcement, there was nothing the deputies could do about the situation. There was another person who was trying to sell a house, but had trouble doing so because when potential buyers would show up to see the house they would discover that it was surrounded by neighboring grows. In one trailer park in Willow Creek, the spaces between the mobiles homes are filled with marijuana plants.
The intent of the outdoor cultivation ordinance is to provide a remedy for these types of nuisances.

Proposed rules

The ordinance basically declares that medical marijuana growing is a nuisance unless growers comply with a set rules.

First, growers would need to register with the Department of Health and Human Services. They would pay a fee, fill out a form and provide the DHHS with a map showing where they plan to grow the weed and where the water would come from for irrigation.

DHHS would provide the growers with a registration number. Most of the information would be handed back to the growers after they are registered. DHHS would only  maintain registration numbers, as well as the growers’ names and addresses.

The county wants to maintain minimal information about the growers. This is in response to a program in neighboring Mendocino County, where the federal government intervened and forced the county hand over records for its medical marijuana registration program.

The draft Humboldt County ordinance has several alternatives for how many plants would be allowed. The Board of Supervisors hasn’t selected a specific alternative, as it’s still gathering public input.

Under one alternative, a parcel of 20 acres or less would be limited to 12 mature and 24 immature pot plants. The plants would have to be at least 100 feet back from property boundaries. A grower could ask the Board of Supervisors to reduce or waive the setbacks if they present a hardship.

Parcels larger than 20 acres but less than 160 acres would be limited to 30 mature plants and 60 immature plants.

Those who grow no more than two plants would be exempt from registering.

The exact number of plants allowed, and the setbacks, may be tweaked by the county before the ordinance is finalized.


As it stands, the county is unable to enforce the existing marijuana growing laws. Law enforcement acts like in triage, taking out only a tiny fraction of the county’s illegal growing operations.

So it’s unlikely that passage of this new ordinance would result in much of a change.

However, as Sundberg pointed out, it would give the Sheriff’s Department a new tool for dealing with specific nuisances.

If the Sheriff’s Department receives a complaint about a grow, a deputy could investigate. If the deputy determines that the grower is out of compliance with the ordinance, then the grower would receive a “Notice to Abate Outdoor Marijuana Cultivation.”

The grower would have 14 days to remove the pot plants. After that, a deputy could arrive and “abate” the nuisance, meaning the offending pot plants would be removed. The grower, or property owner, would be responsible for the cost of the abatement. No arrest would be made, at least not in connection to a violation of this ordinance.

Enforcement of the ordinance would be mostly complaint driven.

“In some respect it would be a squeaky-wheel-gets the-grease situation,” said County CAO Phillip Smith-Hanes.
Public input

The county held meetings about the proposed ordinance in Garberville, Petrolia and Willow Creek before coming to McKinleyville last week.

County CAO Phillip Smith-Hanes said that Southern Humboldt residents strongly objected to a provision in the ordinance that all the structures on the property where the grow would take place have to be permitted. Many of the homes and buildings in Southern Humboldt, as well as elsewhere in the county, were erected without building permits. That requirement was deemed a deal breaker at the SoHum public hearings.

McKMAC Chairman Ben Shepherd said he was concerned about the impact of the large industrial grows. It’s not uncommon for growers to illegally grade their properties, build roads and suck water out of nearby creeks, resulting in significant environmental damage.

Up until recently, Shepherd owned a rural property in Eastern Humboldt County. The area was slowly taken over by pot growers. There were times when Shepherd found plants growing on his own property. He would call the Sheriff’s Department to have them removed, but was always concerned about possible retaliation, like someone burning down his cabin when he wasn’t there. The problems spurred him to sell the property.

Shepherd noted how the marijuana industry is changing the community. All over town there are young men driving $60,000 pickup trucks and paying for everything with cash, even though they don’t have regular employment.

“How obvious can you be?” Shepherd said.

“We have a whole generation of young people who don’t know how to make a living,” Shepherd said, to which another committee pointed out that these young people make a pretty darn good living growing weed.

The McKMAC decided to hold off taking a position on the ordinance until the county makes further revisions. The Board of Supervisors is tentatively scheduled to discuss the ordinance at its May 7 meeting.

To contact the McKMAC, email