The largest proposed cannabis operation in the Santa Rita Hills was granted de novo approval by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
In a 4-1 vote, Supervisors approved an 86-acre cannabis operation along Hapgood Road in the Santa Ynez Valley near neighboring Gainey Vineyard and Melville Winery. The project includes about 81 acres of outdoor cultivation and four acres of nursery cultivation, with no on-site processing.
The Board’s stamp of approval comes after a nearly two year battle on the part of SFS Farms, who initially proposed the project in July 2019. The project was originally approved by the county Planning & Development department in September 2020, but has since been appealed twice by Chad Melville, Ron Melville and Dan Gainey, who are owners of the neighboring estates.
In February, the project passed through its first appeal process with the county’s Planning Commission, where officials denied the appeal and granted de novo approval after a hearing. This led the Melvilles and Mr. Gainey to file a second appeal, which went before the board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
During Tuesday’s hearing, representatives from SFS Farms and both the wineries presented their positions to Supervisors. Officials from both the county’s Planning & Development department and SFS Farms responded to the concerns outlined in the appeal filed by the Melvilles and Mr. Gainey during the hearing.
One of the appellants’ primary concerns centered on the proximity of the proposed cannabis operation to the existing vineyards. With the cannabis operations taking place about 80 feet away, the vineyard owners raised concerns about the potential odor, pesticide drift and terpene taint that would come from the cultivation.
Speaking on behalf of the appellants, Kurt Ammann, the general manager of Melville Winery, said approval of this project would be “irresponsible” and would have a significant impact on the experience of visitors in the winery’s tasting room.
“We conduct several hundred tastings each week outside,” Mr. Ammann told Supervisors. “Customers are evaluating the wine’s aroma, taste and texture. The odor is going to negatively impact those tastings. If those negatively impact our sales — without direct-to-consumer business, Melville Winery will not be financially viable.”
Mr. Ammann added that the direction of the wind will not only cause odor near his tasting room, but all the way into Solvang and Buellton as well.
In addition to concerns over odor, pesticide migration and terpene taint, vineyard owners claimed in their appeal that the project should not be approved based on the “overconcentration” of cannabis in the Santa Rita Hills, non-compliance with the state’s Williamson Act and non-compliance with portions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Staff from the Planning & Development department refuted these claims during Tuesday’s hearings, citing evidence that the project did indeed align with all state and county guidelines.
In response to the appellant’s claims, SFS Farms representatives told Supervisors they were willing to work with the neighboring wineries to determine a solution that would mitigate the potential spread of pesticides and terpenes. Representatives added there is currently no substantial, academic evidence that links cannabis terpenes to wine taint.
“SFS (Farms) is a good neighbor in the valley,” Larry Conlan, a partner with Capello & Nöel LLC, said on behalf of SFS Farms Tuesday. “It’s a heritage agricultural operation. This is the type of project that allows legacy farm operations to continue in Santa Ynez. There will be ongoing cattle operations on the property, there will be ongoing other agricultural produce type operations. This is going to offset some of the costs of continuing with those types of projects.”
“SFS has been willing since day one to work with all of its neighbors,” he added.
After lengthy deliberations during the hearing, SFS Farms agreed to extend the set-back distance of cannabis cultivation and to add landscaping around the eastern property line to diminish possible terpene and pesticide spread.
Four supervisors voted to approve the project after SFS Farms amended the proposal to create a set-back distance of 150-feet and add landscaping around the perimeter of the property that is closest to Gainey Vineyard.
Yet, even with these updates to the project, Supervisor Joan Hartmann, whose district contains the Santa Rita Hills, voted against the proposal. In her remarks, she cited concerns over the large number of projects already underway in the Santa Ynez Valley.
“I’m very concerned about the concentration of cannabis in the Santa Rita Hills,” Ms. Hartmann said Tuesday. “And 86 acres is the largest grow that has come before us — it’s 65 football fields. That’s really massive.”
She added that the county’s cannabis ordinance as it currently stands “straightjackets” the board into approving large grows and limits mitigation power.
“We’re stuck having to approve a gargantuan grow with outsized impacts and no mitigations for serious harms and no ability to do anything in the future,” Ms. Hartmann said. “So for myself, I really can’t vote for this project because of the cumulative impact in the Santa Rita Hills and in the Santa Ynez Valley.”
With approval from the Board of Supervisors in hand, SFS Farms can now apply for a business license with the county and additional licensing from the state. Once these steps are complete, they will be approved to begin cultivation operations in the Santa Rita Hills.