A small cannabis cultivation operation about six miles east of Lompoc won unanimous approval from the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission after a hearing where most of the discussion centered around a federal recommendation for protecting the California tiger salamander.

The project even won support from Renée O’Neill, a vocal opponent of cannabis operations, who said the county needs more small cultivation operations like this one instead of large ones.

Commissioners approved a conditional use permit for Santa Rita Holdings cultivation of about 2.5 acres of cannabis — about 1.9 acres of that under hoops and 0.11 acres for a nursery operation — on a 120-acre parcel north of Highway 246.

Three employees would live in an existing residence on site and an additional 12 employees would be hired during the anticipated three harvests per year, when cannabis would be flash-frozen in refrigeration trucks and transported to another location for processing.

As part of odor control, 2,780 square feet of sweet lavender would be planted around the cultivation site, according to a County Planning and Development Department staff report.

Much of the commission’s June 9 discussion centered around a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommendation that the hoop houses extend all the way to the ground to keep tiger salamanders from entering the structures.

The recommendation became part of the conditions for approval of the project.

That didn’t sit well with 5th District Commissioner Dan Blough, who noted that in the past, Fish and Wildlife said the plastic should not extend all the way to the ground to allow the salamander to pass through.

Chairman and 4th District Commissioner Larry Ferini pointed out that when the hoop structure ordinance was developed in 2018, it was intentionally left silent on how far down the plastic should extend so farmers could adjust that as necessary for their crops.

“I’m not comfortable with letting Fish and Wildlife tell us where to set the plastic,” said Ferini, adding he didn’t want it to become precedent setting.

Blough wanted it removed because the condition would apply to the land, and should the property be sold in the future, the new owners would be bound by it.

Planning Director Lisa Plowman suggested a condition for a barrier to be added to the fence that would enclose the cultivation area, so the hoop plastic could be adjusted as needed but salamanders would be kept completely out of the property.

“I think there’s the danger here of not putting the thought and time into drafting a condition that won’t cause unintended consequences,” said 3rd District Commissioner John Parke, adding he didn’t want some enforcement officer four years from now interpreting the condition in a way not intended.

“It can get completely ridiculous if we have an oversimple condition,” he said.

Ultimately, the condition was modified to have the project meet the wildlife management plan and wildlife protection plan as well as any subsequent modifications and revisions required by the state and federal wildlife agencies.

Opponents to the project consisted mostly of adjacent neighbors and focused on a lack of permission to use the private easement from the end of the publicly maintained Santa Rita Road to the grow site, an increase in traffic over the road and the lack of a distributor’s license, among other things.

But project applicant Jason Hillenbrand and his representative Kathleen Wold noted cannabis has been grown at the site for five years with no complaints, the transportation plan reduced trips and required small trucks and cannabis would be transported by a third party with a distributor’s license.

“It appears the biggest issue here is easements,” Parke said, adding he wasn’t concerned about that. “I don’t see an overburdening issue here.”