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Environmental Groups Sue Humboldt County Over Cannabis Project

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Northcoast Environmental Center (NEC), Redwood Region Audubon Society (RRAS), Citizens for a Sustainable Humboldt (CSH), and neighbor Mary Gaterud have been forced to file a second lawsuit challenging Humboldt County over the Rolling Meadow Ranch, LLC (RMR) industrial scale cannabis project located in a remote rural neighborhood.

In this additional lawsuit, the groups ask the Court to:

(1) suspend all County decisions approving the Project Changes pending trial,

(2) issue an order vacating all post-approval Project Changes, and suspending all Project activity that could result in any change or alteration to the physical environment until the County and the Project applicant have taken actions that may be necessary to bring the Project Changes into compliance with CEQA,

(3) require the County to prepare, circulate, and consider a new and legally adequate EIR and to comply with CEQA in any subsequent action taken to approve the Project.

This very controversial development project, opposed by the neighbors, the community, six environmental groups, the local Fire Protection District, and 1,979 petition signers, was approved by the Planning Commission on January 21, 2021, upon the recommendation of Planning Department Staff.

The neighbors brought an Appeal of this land use decision before the County Board of Supervisors, asking them to deny Approval of the Project. The Board denied the Appeal (thus upholding the Approval) by a 3 to 2 vote on March 9th, 2021, resulting in an adoption of an insufficient “Initial Study / Mitigated Negative Declaration (IS/MND)” and approval of six Conditional Use Permits (CUPs).

Supervisors Bohn, Bushnell, and Bass voted to deny the Appeal. Mike Wilson and Steve Madrone dissented, voting against Approval of a Project with obvious, unmitigated issues. Larry Glass, Board President of the NEC, says, “I believe Wilson and Madrone voted against this Project because everyone knew it wasn’t in compliance.”

Supervisor Rex Bohn has subsequently admitted that an immediate family member is a stakeholder in this Project, and would be working for the Florida based Project Applicant. According to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Code of Ethics, our elected officials have a responsibility to be “fair in their judgement and actions,” and:

“In order to assure their independence and impartiality in the County’s best interest, Board members shall not use their official positions to influence decisions in which they have a conflict of interest of any nature. All Board members shall use their best efforts to refrain from creating even the appearance of impropriety in their actions and decisions.”

At a minimum, an abstention from voting on the Appeal would have allowed Supervisor Bohn to avoid the appearance of corruption, as is mandated by County Policy.

Since this Approval, amidst pending litigation, the Applicant has sought and obtained grading permits and other questionable approvals from the County that include changes to the Project that are inconsistent with mandatory provisions of the adopted Conditions of Approval, the Humboldt County Cannabis Ordinance, and other local and state land use regulations.

These changes are drastic revisions to the approved Plan, and include no provision for the requisite rainwater catchment for fire suppression, grading of slopes in excess of 15% which violates the original “Prime-Ag Soils” designation, and operations without a PG&E power drop. This requires the use of many high wattage generators in excess of what was originally approved, dependent upon the transport of volatile fuel by large delivery trucks on inadequate roads, vastly increasing wildfire risk.

Another change includes the use of a private road as the main route to proposed cultivation sites, for which the Applicant does not have legal access. During the 2020 review process for the Project Description, the owner of this road lodged a publicly recorded objection to this trespass. In response, the Applicant and the County modified the Project Description in a revised IS/MND to reflect a longer, more circuitous route that addressed this concern and did not cross the neighbor’s property.

Since Project construction has begun, not only has the Applicant been using this unapproved route, The County, by issuing grading permits depicting this route as the main access, has tacitly sanctioned this ongoing hostile trespass, and violated CEQA.

Additionally, the Condition of Approval requiring the Applicant to obtain a Lake and Streambed Alteration Agreement (LSAA) from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) for the secondary access route to the site via Alderpoint Road — which, according to the revised IS/MND has multiple documented stream crossings (34) requiring remediation prior to commencement of project construction and operations — has not been upheld. The LSAA granted by CDFW also includes the unauthorized, unanalyzed trespass route, and neglects to address a number of stream crossings on the main access route depicted in the IS/MND. As the lead agency, the County has a duty to ensure that its permitting process is integrated and aligned with that of CDFW’s.

Because these unanalyzed post-approval changes may cause potentially significant impacts to the environment, they are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and subsequent environmental review.

The Groups involved in the original lawsuit formally alerted RMR and the County to the trespass issue and environmental noncompliance in a letter dated October 29, 2021. When presented with a substantiated explanation of the issues, the County dismissively defended the Project, as modified.

The County’s on-going concessions to the Applicant, which violate its own requirements, represents a serious and egregious breakdown in governmental oversight. These intolerable actions render the entire environmental review process a performative farce— weighted in favor of the financial interests of a private individual at the expense of the Environment and Humboldt County residents.

Mary Gaterud, a neighbor of the Project, and small cultivator who has gone through the County’s permitting process, is aghast at the inequity of the treatment afforded the Project Applicant. She says, “I am shocked by the uneven application of the law. This guy gets a pass from the County to break all the rules, while local legacy cultivators have been bled dry, jumping through all the hoops, trying to meet those same rules? They were designed to mitigate the impacts of exactly this kind of industrial operation… and yet they are not being applied in this case. The County is encouraging illegal cultivation operations with unanalyzed and unmitigated environmental impacts via a hostile trespass. Why is that? I’d be abated, fined, and possibly arrested for similar behavior.”

This blatant display of pay-to-play cronyism on the part of elected public officials and County Staff, salaried by Humboldt County tax dollars, must be challenged.

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