It is the winter of discontent for many Buellton-area vintners and residents, as two more outdoor cannabis projects, one of them the largest in the county to date, have been approved for the picturesque Sta. Rita Hills wine region.
How and whether the county requires odor controls on these early projects – SFS Farms OpCo 1 at the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills and Central Coast Agriculture at the eastern end near Buellton – will set a precedent for nearly 800 acres of outdoor grows that are proposed for the region and in various stages of county review, critics say.
In all, the county has received 24 applications for cannabis cultivation operations in the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally designated American Viticultural Area between Lompoc and Buellton.
“The situation is going to be made worse and worse, the more of these that are approved,” Kurt Ammann, general manager of the Melville Winery, told the county Planning Commission during a hearing last week. “It will be the end of a heritage form of agriculture in this county.”
At the Feb. 3 meeting, representatives of the Melville, Gainey, Zotovich and Kessler-Haak wineries, and residents of Highway 246, were appealing a proposal by SFS Farms for 87 acres of cannabis – about 65 football fields’ worth – that was approved last fall by the county planning director. At a minimum, they asked the commission to scale down the project.
SFS Farms would overwhelm nearby homes and tasting rooms with the skunky smell of pot, these critics said, and the prevailing winds would blow the odors into Buellton. The wine growers also said they were worried about potential damage to their grapes from oily compounds, called “terpenes,” that are released into the air by marijuana plants.
“You’re talking about a massive, massive size difference over what the commission has reviewed so far,” Ammann told the commission. “The odor is going to affect residents and hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to this area to spend money.”
Keith Saarloos, a Los Olivos vintner, reminded the commissioners that “there’s pictures of vineyards in your offices.”
“Cannabis is untested, untried and could hurt this industry…” he said. “We’ll lose something that makes our county special.”
Santa Barbara County tracks cannabis cultivation applications which are shown by location. Each red dot indicates a separate application. (Melinda Burns illustration )
Speaking for SFS Farms, Larry Conlan, an attorney, called the vintners’ arguments “misinformed,” “biased” and “fear-mongering” and claimed that the Melville Winery was “fanning the flames with the flyers it sent out to the community.”
SFS Farms lies south of the tasting rooms and 8 miles from Buellton, Conlan said, and the cannabis to be grown there will be a strain that smells like “vanilla dessert.” And there is no scientific evidence that terpenes from cannabis can damage wine grapes, he said.
“This is the type of project that the county cherishes for cannabis,” Conlan said.
Bob Campbell, a third-generation farmer, is leasing a small portion of his 965-acre ranch at 4874 Hapgood Rd. to SFS Farms. He noted that many agricultural commodities have come and gone in the region because they were not profitable, including mustard seed, dairy products, sugar beets and flower seed. Campbell runs a cattle operation and grows strawberries and vegetables.
“Vineyards are not the only agricultural use that counts,” he told the commission. “Cannabis will allow families like mine to have the income we need to keep our farms intact and in production.”
But Dan Gainey, a third-generation farmer whose vineyard lies next to SFS Farms, countered that previous crops in the Sta. Rita Hills went out of business because of market conditions, not because they were “forced out” by “incompatible uses.”
“I’m for cannabis,” Gainey said. “I’m just not for it at the expense of existing viable operations.”
Planning Commissioner John Parke of Solvang proposed reducing the project to 42 acres to create a 1,500-foot buffer between it and downwind vineyards. He said a larger project would undermine “the integrity of agricultural operations” in violation of the county’s general plan.
The other commissioners liked Parke’s idea, but Planning Director Lisa Plowman told them that county ordinances did not allow the commission to scale down the project. In the end, the vote was 4-1 in favor of SFS Farms, with Parke opposed.
County ordinances do not require odor control on most outdoor cannabis cultivation projects, and no odor control was required for this one.
In addition, the commissioners voted 5-0 to solicit bids for an independent study on the impact of cannabis terpenes on wine grapes, if the county Board of Supervisors agrees.
“We’ve been talking about it for two years and it’s time to get it done,” Commissioner Dan Blough of Santa Maria said.
Central Coast Agriculture Cannabis Cultivation
The commission’s vote on SFS Farms comes on the heels of its unanimous Jan. 13 approval of Central Coast Agriculture, a 32-acre hoop-house operation at 8701 Santa Rosa Road near Buellton.
Unlike SFS Farms, Central Coast Agriculture is less than half a mile from a rural neighborhood and requires a conditional use permit, a more restrictive zoning permit that applies to only five of the cannabis projects in the pipeline west of Buellton.
John De Friel, the Central Coast Agriculture owner and CEO, was required to install carbon air filters in his processing building and place an odor-neutralizing piping system around one corner of his property. In addition, he must fresh-freeze his plants within two hours of harvest; investigate and address neighbors’ odor complaints, and perform onsite weather monitoring.
Central Coast Agriculture, a 32-acre project for cannabis cultivation under hoops at 8701 Santa Rosa Rd., was approved in January by the county Planning Commission. The project is near Buellton and has stricter requirements for odor control than many other outdoor farms, but a citizens’ coalition thinks the rules do not go far enough. (Melinda Burns photo)
That’s more odor control than was required for Busy Bee’s Organics, Castlerock Family Farms and West Coast Farms, three outdoor grows that were approved last year on Highway 246 in the Sta. Rita Hills. The Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis has filed lawsuits against the county regarding all three farms.
At Central Coast Agriculture, De Friel is voluntarily growing low-odor strains of cannabis. Two commissioners said they visited the operation during a recent harvest and didn’t smell anything.
“I think we’ve come up with the best way of dealing with odor control that we can,” Parke said.
The Planning Commission did not require De Friel to test for odor at harvest time, which both the City of Buellton and the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis had lobbied for. The coalition, a countywide group, has appealed the Central Coast Agriculture approval to the county Board of Supervisors.
Buellton residents say the stench of cannabis permeated the town during the fall harvest last October. Busy Bee’s and Central Coast Agriculture are the only two cannabis projects operating near town, but even so, it’s hard to tell which one is responsible for the smell, City Manager Scott Wolfe said.
“Unless the county mandates odor testing on each and every parcel, you’re not going to be able to prove anything,” he said. “There’s not going to be a way to determine where the smell is coming from.”
Testing could demonstrate whether the odor control equipment and low-odor strains of cannabis at Central Coast Agriculture are actually working, said Marc Chytilo, a coalition attorney.
“They claim they’ve never been responsible for odors,” he said. “They should be able to demonstrate that they’re not causing odors beyond their property line.”
Theresa Reilly, a retired Buellton teacher, said the smell of cannabis gives her headaches, sinus problems and a sore throat.
“We had two really bad weeks in 2020,” she said, “but we’re looking at several really bad months in 2021 from the multiple farms that are going in.”
Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.