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Santa Barbara County Planning Commission denies appeal of Cuyama Valley cannabis operation
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Santa Barbara County Planning Commission denies appeal of Cuyama Valley cannabis operation

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The impact of a 34-acre cannabis cultivation project on an overdrafted groundwater basin, and whether an offset agreement would mitigate that impact, became the central issue in an appeal of the permit for the Cuyama Valley cannabis operation.

Marc Chytilo, representing farmer Jean Gaillard, asked the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission to either uphold the appeal and deny the project or at least continue the hearing until cannabis and water use guidelines could be developed by a local committee.

But commissioners said Orange Coast Farms’ cultivation operation couldn’t be used to solve the larger problem of falling groundwater levels, particularly with unregulated carrot and wine grape operations sucking up more water than cannabis would.

Commissioners unanimously voted on March 31 to deny the appeal and approve the operation, also known as the Suarez Project by Cuyama Farms LLC, at 2225 Foothill Road.

“If you really want to solve the water overdraft problem, get rid of all the carrots,” said 5th District Commissioner Dan Blough. “Turn it all into cannabis. Problem solved."

Cuyama Groundwater Basin.jpg

A map included in a presentation about Orange Coast Farms' cannabis project in Cuyama shows the huge size of the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin that was at the heart of an appeal of the cultivation project heard and rejected on March 31 by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission.

Third District Commissioner John Park wanted to continue the hearing for a couple of months, but he agreed with Blough’s assessment.

“It’s hard for us to balance all of the water problems of Cuyama Valley … on a single cannabis project … when we have 2,000 to 3,000 acres of vineyard just down Highway 166 that went in with really no regulation — and you have the enormous carrot use,” Parke said.

“All the cannabis [water use] put together in this county isn’t going to be as much as the Brodiaea vineyard.”

Second District Commissioner Laura Bridley said it’s unreasonable to tell an applicant to stop a project until an advisory committee can finish developing cannabis guidelines.

“If this wasn’t cannabis, we wouldn’t be here talking about it,” Bridley said.

Michael Cooney, whose 1st District encompasses the cannabis cultivation site, didn’t favor a delay.

“Looking at the project on its own merits, I can’t see putting it off for another two months,” Cooney said.

Moe Essa and Moe Jawad were granted a land use permit to grow 34 acres of cannabis outdoors under hoops on a 78-acre site that also holds a jujube tree orchard and a sheep grazing operation.

The project includes demolishing six unpermitted small buildings and constructing a security kiosk, restrooms, a pesticide and materials storage shed, two 500-gallon water tanks and security fencing.

The permit was appealed last October on eight issues, but the elephant in the room was the impact on the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin that’s already in overdraft and considered one of the state’s two “critical” basins.

Essa and Jawad voluntarily entered into an agreement with a farmer in Ventucopa who will stop irrigating 28.5 acres of alfalfa on his land with groundwater, resulting in a 1:1 offset of the water pumped from the basin for the cannabis operation.

Chytilo and six of the 12 citizens who spoke said the 1:1 offset would have no impact on halting the groundwater overdraft, and that the comprehensive impact of additional proposed cannabis operations would harm the basin.

Chytilo said a more comprehensive plan was needed.

“There needs to be a way to make Cuyama whole through this [cannabis] industry, and this one-off approach is not sufficient to do that,” he said.

But Amy Steinfeld, representing Essa and Jawad, said all the proposed cannabis projects combined would account for only 2% of the total estimated increase in agricultural water use.

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