The Board of Supervisors, on a 3-2 vote, Tuesday tentatively agreed to permit marijuana cultivation and sales in unincorporated areas of Riverside County and directed staff to refine a set of regulations that will establish where, when and how cannabis is grown and distributed.
Following a nearly four-hour public hearing, during which more than three dozen people spoke, a board majority reached consensus on issues under scrutiny for the last two years.
Supervisors Marion Ashley and John Tavaglione, both of whom are retiring at the end of December, opposed inaugurating any regulatory scheme, citing personal feelings against open and recreational use of marijuana.
"I believe this is taking our society in the wrong direction," Ashley said. "I do not want Riverside County to become like Colorado."
The supervisor pointed to statistics showing triple-digit increases in drugged driving crashes in the Centennial State and a growth in underground criminal enterprises since commercial marijuana cultivation and sales were authorized there six years ago.
"I'm concerned about the impact of this on my children and on your children," Ashley said. "I'm fine with medical marijuana use, but not this. And by having recreational sales (in unincorporated communities), we'll be surrounding cities like Menifee, Murrieta, Beaumont and Riverside that are not doing it."
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, who has served on the county's Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee since the beginning of 2017, expressed reluctance to move forward with legalization in the unincorporated areas, but admitted that the tax revenue garnered from cultivation and sales would provide the means to pay for "parks, street lights, community centers" and other facilities in places within his First District that have been neglected.
Estimates on potential county receipts from granting marijuana business permits range from $10 million to $17 million annually. The board approved a $42,000 contract with Brea-based accountancy firm HDL to assess potential first-year income.
Under the regulatory plan, a maximum of 19 marijuana dispensaries and 50 commercial grows may be permitted in 2019. However, all of the commercial enterprises would have to enter into individual development agreements -- contracts -- with the county before they can open for business. Each agreement will be subject to board approval.
The entities would also have to first procure state permits, as required under the Medicinal & Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation & Safety Act, which mandates that localities have the authority to maintain a blanket ban on all commercial cannabis activity, though personal cultivation of up to 24 plants for recreation and medical purposes, as defined under voter-approved Proposition 64, cannot be outlawed.
The board elected to continue prohibitions against mobile dispensaries, and even outdoor commercial grows are limited to nursery stock.
All large-scale grows involving mature cannabis plants must be kept inside buildings, which include greenhouses.
The regulations further specify that no commercial cannabis development will be allowed in designated areas of the county where law enforcement is stretched thin and whose residents have voiced vehement complaints to the county Planning Commission about lights, noise, smell, environmental impacts, water diversion and other factors connected to commercial activity.
Those areas are zoned as residential-agricultural (R-A), residential-rural (R-R) and controlled development (W-2). They encompass areas such as the Anza Valley, Sage and unincorporated Winchester.
Sage resident Bill Donahue expressed his thanks for the prohibition, telling the board that commercial activity should be restricted to where "it can be regulated and where you have law enforcement available."
"None of us want anything like a distillery next to our property," Donahue said. "If an individual wants to grow six plants for personal use, no problem."
Longtime pot deregulation activist Lanny Swerdlow criticized the county block impacting the R-A, R-R and W-2 zones.
"If you did this to other businesses, they would grind to a halt," he said. "What's really beyond comprehension is you're throwing away tax money by doing this."
The supervisors pondered making changes on the spot to the zone restrictions, but after hearing from Transportation & Land Management Agency officials, the stipulations were left alone. According to the TLMA, modifying the regulations would require a zoning change, which can be done at the board's pleasure.
The regulatory framework calls for setbacks to prevent marijuana dispensaries from being within 1,000 feet of schools, parks or daycare centers, and no two dispensaries can operate on the same city block. Fixing the placement of indoor grow sites to create sufficient buffer space between commercial and residential property lines will mean setbacks ranging from 25 to 100 feet, depending on the size of the grow, according to TLMA documents.
Gem Montes with Inland Empire NORML called the framework "convoluted."
"Simplify this process and keep costs reasonable," she told the board. "You will only proliferate the black market with all these regulations. Cannabis operators are not sitting on a pile of cash getting high. They're just people."
Swerdlow, Montes and other activists denounced the development agreements as overly onerous and suggested that the county was baking in failure to deter commercial cannabis enterprises from gaining a foothold.
Jeffries' vote in favor of the regulatory scheme was joined by Supervisors V. Manuel Perez and Chuck Washington.
They asked TLMA and Office of County Counsel staff to return in the next 60-90 days with firm language on guidelines for developer agreements, fees and other components.
Jeffries opined that because the agreements will impose "benefit costs" on applicants that are tantamount to taxes, there's a strong possibility the entire regulatory scheme will be voided by the courts, and the matter will have to be put before voters countywide.