Concerns about fairness, consistency and a perceived need to overhaul the entire permit appeals process prompted the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to take no action Tuesday on a plan to recover the cost of processing appeals of cannabis permits.
Meeting in Santa Maria, the board also heard a report on how the county responded to the Holiday fire, including the importance of weather condition forecasts and advance planning in saving lives and property and keeping the fire contained.
Supervisors also approved a response to the grand jury report on mandatory overtime in the Sheriff’s Office, set the special tax levy for residential areas in Orcutt and Lompoc and heard a report on proposed changes to the Juvenile Justice system.
The Planning and Development Department proposed amending the Fee Ordinance to deal with an anticipated increase in the number of appeals filed as the county begins issuing permits for various types of cannabis operations.
As proposed, those applying for cannabis permits would be liable for the full cost of the staff time required in processing the appeals, while the person or groups filing an appeal would continue to pay the current $505 fee.
A cannabis permit applicant appealing a permit denial or conditions on an approved permit would pay the $505 fee plus the processing costs, which would be billed monthly.
The Planning and Development Department staff doesn’t know how many cannabis appeals might be filed.
But they believe it could be a considerable number, considering the state has issued 145 temporary licenses in the county, public notification of pending cannabis permits has been expanded and the public has shown substantial interest and registered numerous complaints over cannabis operations.
Having cannabis permit applicants shoulder the cost of appeal processing would reduce the loss from the General Fund, which is already taking a hit from the appeals filed every year over various projects.
“The reason for this is it aligns with board policy and with cost recovery,” said Dianne Black, director of the Planning and Development Department. “Cannabis appeals may happen relatively soon. They will happen soon and they will happen once.”
Steve Mason, assistant director of Planning and Development, said an average of 25 appeals have been filed annually for the past four years, resulting in a loss of $250,000 to $320,000 a year.
Based on the average cost per appeal, applicants for cannabis permits could face fees ranging from $10,000 to $12,800 per appeal, although cannabis appeals could be more complex and, thus, cost more.
Cannabis operators who spoke during the hearing generally supported the concept, but some thought the county should cover the cost from the taxes it will charge on cannabis products or place a cap — like $10,000 — on the cost so it wouldn’t be “a blank check.”
Bruce Watkins said he didn’t want to see the fee become “just another revenue source” for the county.
“Whoever files an appeal pays for it,” he said. “Since we all make mistakes, there should be a way to reimburse (the appellant) if the county makes an error in the process.”
Lisa Bodrogi of the land-use planning consulting firm of Cuveé Connections said the board should re-evaluate the process of appeals in general.
“The appeals process itself is really broken,” she said, noting that for a nominal fee of $505, anyone can appeal a project with or without a legitimate issue. “A new system should be developed that puts more of an onus on the appellant and not all of the burden on the applicant and/or the County General Funds, i.e., taxpayers’ dollars.”
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino agreed, adding the cannabis industry will be paying license and permit fees as well as state and local taxes.
“It’s not like a double dip but a triple dip on the cannabis industry,” he said of the proposed appeal fees. “I do think they should have some skin in the game, but no more than the appellant does.”
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam asked county counsel if there was some way to develop a test to filter out some of the appellants who lack standing.
“This (appeals) process has undoubtedly been abused and abusive — for everybody,” Adam said. “The other thing is just consistency. Everyone should be treated equally, if it’s the oil industry or cannabis or just some guy with a house.
“If you’re going to single out an agricultural operation, I think that’s kind of a bad idea.”
Board Chairman and 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said he agreed with the sentiment but didn’t think the county should wait on the fees to deal with the larger process.
Williams also said he doesn’t think the permit applicant should bear the whole cost, although picking up more of the cost than the appellant would be OK, but he was concerned about relying on cannabis taxes to cover the cost.
“The problem with marijuana revenue is we really don’t know how much will be produced yet,” he said.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said she was glad Planning and Development had put forth the proposed ordinance amendment.
“If we don’t do something today to keep it at status quo, that will hurt us financially,” she said, adding she believes in the right of citizens to appeal but the county should have a standard process.
But 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann seemed reluctant to require applicants to shoulder the total cost.
“Full cost recovery of appeals may not be where I land,” Hartmann said, saying partial cost recovery might be more practical.
Black said if the board chose to do nothing Tuesday, her department would continue to process permit applications.
When it appeared supervisors would not act on the ordinance amendment, she recommended returning to the board in November or December with a full package that would revise the appeals process and include potential cost recovery strategies.
By that time, Black said, the county would have more experience with cannabis permits and the level of appeals that might be expected.