Just when you’d think you’re fully out of the weeds, you can get pulled right back in.
The conversation around the proposed Colitas Farms project in Walker came before the Board of Supervisors again on Tuesday, with the opportunity for the Supervisors to approve findings by county staff from the February 4 meeting in Walker and deny Colitas Farms cultivation and manufacturing permits.
Jeni Pearsons, representing Colitas Farms, took the podium to read a letter written by attorney Nicole Laggner on her behalf. The letter asked the Board not to deny the permits, to reschedule the item on the board agenda, and follow staff recommendations to approve it.
Laggner’s reasons for asking for reconsideration: a) Supervisors Peters and Gardner’s reasoning for denial fell outside the discretion afforded in the ordinance b) Supervisor Stump’s assessments were inaccurate and contradictory, and c) the permit applications meet all the requirements asked of them.
The letter asserts that Supervisor Peters’ determinations “did not cite a single ‘articulable impact’ but rather stated that he ‘know[s] the community pretty well,’”; in addition, Laggner further alleges that Supervisor Peters had been aware of the project since June 2018 and had, in fact, encouraged Colitas Farms to proceed at every step of the way.
Supervisor Gardner was not spared, as he faced similar criticism for not adhering to the criteria of the ordinance, and both he and Supervisor Peters were accused of abusing their discretion as a Supervisor.
Laggner took issue with Supervisor Stump for claiming that had Colitas committed in writing to maintain North River Lane, as opposed to an oral commitment, his decision would have been different.
Laggner and Colitas asserted that Colitas had followed all of the procedures that they’d been asked to and acted as transparently as possible from the project’s inception; they shouldn’t be punished for adhering to the rules. Accordingly, in their view, there was no sound reason for denying the permits.
Additionally, Laggner ripped the Board for allowing “a small, vocal minority to intimidate, harass, and bully the applicants, the community and the Board meeting process.”
After Pearsons concluded reading the letter, a woman viewing the meeting from Bridgeport stood up to note that she and the others gathered in Bridgeport were supportive of the county’s findings to deny the permits and stated, “I would just like to note based on what was just presented, we are not a small majority.”
Supervisor Peters was the first on the Board to respond to the letter, and he began by noting that he is not a lawyer and doesn’t speak with “legal” terminology.
“I appreciate the passion, the drive of the applicants. I don’t agree with everything with what was characterized with what I said and what I did,” Peters said. “I wholly agree with inconsistencies with residential character…[it] was not compatible with the community in Antelope Valley for this particular project site.”
Supervisor Kreitz maintained her stance that the project should be approved.
“Residents knew when they bought their homes that ag was permitted on the other side,” Kreitz said, “That could include commercial uses and likely more traffic than imposed by commercial employees.”
Kreitz proposed changing the land use designation for all parcels opposite homes on North River Lane as “This is clearly a problem that’s not going to go away.”
Like Supervisor Peters, Supervisor Stump reiterated his opposition to the project, stating that, “Board members are allowed to consider such things as private roads” when voting and that “Staff did advise proponent that there was community opposition [to the project].”
Stump also took issue Pearsons bringing in an attorney, telling her, “You made a lot of statements about wanting to be a good member of the community. Attorneys stop conversations more than they start them.”
The Board voted the same way that they had on February 4, with Peters, Gardner, and Stump in favor of accepting staff findings and rejecting the permits while Kreitz and Chair Corless voted in favor of approving the permits.
Speaking with Pearsons after the meeting, she told the Sheet, “This was our life dream to build the second half of our lives on a rural foundation, start a small farm in a small-town community where we could retire. We have been pursuing this dream since early 2018, investing our hearts, time, and savings.”
When asked whether or not Pearsons and Colitas would continue to push for permit approval, Pearsons responded, “We believe in what we are doing too much to give up now.”
The Sheet asked Pearsons whether or not they would’ve continued had the project been accepted, given public outcry.
“Yes,” Pearsons said, “because, if given the chance, we would operate our farm with the least amount of impact and pursuant to the rigorous regulatory requirements imposed on the project that are in the interest of public health and safety. We want to be a part of this community, and we respect everyone’s right to the quiet enjoyment of their properties and would like the same respect in return.”
“When the Planning Commission – the experts on land use and impacts, unanimously grants a use permit on AG land pursuant to the laws that were enacted based on the popular vote,” Pearsons told the Sheet, “the project should be allowed to move forward.”
Below is the letter from Laggner:
Dear Honorable Board of Supervisors
We request that the Board:
1. Reschedule the item on the Board’s agenda and review the staff recommendations that urged the Board to approve the Permits; and
2. Follow Staff and Planning Department recommendations to approve the Colitas Farm Permits
for the following reasons:
1. Supervisor Peters and Gardner’s determinations were outside the scope of the statutory discretion provided by the County’s ordinance.
The code provides six criteria by which the Supervisors are to evaluate an application when approving or denying a Cannabis Operations Permit:
1. The experience and qualifications of the applicant and any persons involved in the management of the proposed cannabis business;
2. Whether there are specific and articulable positive or negative impacts on the surrounding community or adjacent properties from the proposed cannabis facility
3. The adequacy and feasibility of business, operations, security, waste management, odor control, and other plans or measure submitted by the applicant;
4.Whether granting the permit will result in an undesirable overconcentration of the cannabis industry in a limited number persons or in a limited geographic area within the county
5. Environmental impacts/benefits of the cannabis such as waste handling, recycling, water treatment and supply, use of renewable energy or other resources, etc; and
6. Economic impacts to the community and the county such as the number and quality of jobs created and/or other economic contributions
Supervisor Peters determinations did not cite a single “ articulable negative impact” but rather stated that he “know[s] the community pretty well,” and that, ultimately, “it’s not about who the people are, necessarily, but about the character of the community.” As noted by Supervisor Kreitz, the task of the Supervisors is not to subjectively evaluate the “character” of their community, but rather, to evaluate the appropriateness of a business permit purusant to specific criteria. Moreover, Supervisor Peters has been aware of the details of this project since June 2018; at no point did he ever suggest to Colitas Farms that their business was contrary to the “character” of his district; rather, he encouraged them to proceed at every stage and urged them “to be pioneers.”
Supervisor Peters’ findings are not supported by the directives of the ordinance and unless remedied as requested here, would amount to an abuse of his discretion.
Similarly, Supervisor Gardner’s comments also do not provide a single “articulable negative impact.” He stated that “ it would hurt the community character […]” and the project is “too close to the residential area.” The Planning Commission unanimously approved the project as it is within the current setback requirements of the ordinance. “Community character” is not one of the criteria that the Supervisors are permitted to rely upon in evaluating the business permit. This too, if left unremedied, represents an abuse of discretion of Supervisor Gardner’s authority.
2. Supervisor Stump’s determinations were inaccurate and in direct contradiction to the written plans provided to the Board for review.
Supervisor Stump incorrectly summarized that, had Colitas Farms provided written documentation of its intent to maintain the private road, rather than only oral commitments to do so, then that would have affected his decision; however, the written pack specifically addresses the maintenance of the private road. Either Supervisor Stump did not review the plans submitted by Colitas Farms, or mistakenly made this determination. In either case, this false statement cannot be relied upon to deny the applicant’s permit.
3. Fundamental fairness and due process requires the Colitas Farms Permits to be approved: Colitas Farms’ Permit Application meets all statutory criteria and has been approved by the Planning Department as suitable use for the location under the County Code.
Colitas Farms has acted prudently and transparently with the County from the inception of their project in early 2018, meeting frequently with their resident Supervisor (Supervisor Peters) and the planning department. They were instructed to include all possible iterations of their project and “paint” with a broad stroke because they could always scale back. On several occasions, they were encouraged by Supervisor Peters to proceed with their project. The owners of Colitas Farms have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars based on the direction and recommendations of the County, including the purchase of land, substantial cleanup of the land, a CEQA analysis, and professional surveys and evaluations regarding building, land, and water.
Colitas Farms’ Use Permit was unanimusly approved by the Planning Commission. Accordingly, staff recommended to the Board to approve Colitas Farms’ Cannabis Business Operations Permits. In tentatively denying approval, the Board has abused its discretion in citing reasons outside of the scope of the ordinance for denying the Permits and has allowed a small, vocal minority to intimidate, harass, and bully the applicants, community and the Board meeting process.
Based on the foregoing, we respectfully request that the Board not approve and adopt the findings that would deny Colitas Farms Permits, and that the Board uphold its procedural and administrative duties in appropriately evaluating the project on the criteria required by the ordinance.
Very truly yours,
Nicole Laggner (Clark-Neubert LLP)