As the concentration of cannabis cultivation in the Santa Ynez Valley continues to grow, winery managers and vineyard owners are voicing concerns over the impact cannabis operations could have on business.
Santa Rosa Road, which stretches from Buellton to Lompoc, was once an area primarily monopolized by vineyards and wineries. But in recent years, the vast agricultural region has become a hot spot for the cannabis industry.
Cannabis operations in the region range in size from about two acres to approximately 86 acres, according to Jeff Wilson, the assistant director of the county’s Planning and Development Department. And despite existing operations, interest in this region remains high for cannabis cultivators.
Earlier this month, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and the county’s Planning Commission paved the way for Central Coast Agriculture to move forward with a 29-acre project on Santa Rosa Road near Buellton after shooting down an appeal from the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis.
As the concentration of cannabis operations along Santa Rosa Road continues to grow, it’s provoked anger from vineyard owners and winery managers who say the smell of the cannabis creates a poor environment for customers and the agricultural expansion taints the natural beauty of the Valley.
David Lafond, the general manager of Lafond Winery & Vineyards, said he has heard complaints from customers about the smell of cannabis in the area during visits to his business.
“It’s tough to have wine tasters in our tasting room when everything smells like skunks,” Mr. Lafond told the News-Press.
In addition to the smell, Mr. Lafond said the appearance of the cannabis operations is “completely counter to what (the wine industry) spent 50 years developing.”
“Our business is based a lot on tourism and agricultural tourism,” Mr. Lafond said. “People love to come up here and see the agriculture, and the vineyards are very attractive.”
Many cannabis growers in the region utilize fences to protect their property and deploy hoop houses to protect crops from insects and create a greenhouse environment outdoors. Some cannabis operations even hired security guards to stand watch at properties.
These security elements and growing mechanisms distract from a natural beauty of the region and is “very disconcerting” to tourist and vineyard visitors, Mr. Lafond said.
“I worry about the tourist industry because we’ve worked so hard and the wine industry has worked hard to cultivate the atmosphere and notoriety that people recognize,” Mr. Lafond said. “It’s a beautiful place to come, and the cannabis is not beautiful when it’s covered by hoop houses.”
Other winery managers in the area share Mr. Lafond’s concerns. Debra Eagle, the general manager at Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards, also has concerns that the appearance of the cannabis operations could deter tourists and potential customers from visiting wineries on Santa Rosa Road.
Ms. Eagle said the combination of the guards and high security fences deployed by some cannabis operations, including CCA, looks like a “prison.”
“How many people after seeing something like that want to come back,” Ms. Eagle told the News-Press.
In addition to the appearance, the massive size of the cannabis operations along Santa Rosa Road is a primary concern for Ms. Eagle.
Unlike Napa County, where commercial cannabis cultivation is prohibited, or Sonoma County, where strict measures limit the size of cannabis operations, Santa Barbara County does not limit the size of cultivation. Instead, the county requires specific permits depending on proposed grows in urban or rural zones.
In zones that the county aims to protect for long-term agricultural use, known as Agricultural II zones, the county requires operators to apply for a conditional use permit if cannabis cultivation takes up more than 51% of a plot of land.
But without a limit on acreage, Santa Barbara County has unleashed some massive grows in the Santa Rita Hills, inundating Santa Rosa Road with cannabis operations.
In an effort to rein in the cannabis industry’s massive expansion in Santa Barbara County, the Board of Supervisors established a policy that caps the total numbers of acres allowed for cannabis grows at 1,575 acres inland, which excludes any cap on operations in Carpinteria. Gregg Hart, second district supervisor, told the News-Press he believes the cap will give the county “a chance to learn about how the (wine and cannabis) industries can co-exist.”
For county officials, finding a way to please agricultural workers in the Santa Ynez Valley comes with a significant revenue boost for the county.
Cannabis has quickly become one of the county’s largest sources of revenue, generating $4.2 million in revenue in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020-2021. In comparison, the wine industry generated $1.7 million in economic impact throughout all of 2020.
Currently, the county has approximately 3,005 acres of proposed cannabis projects in the pipeline, about 848 acres of which has been approved, according to Mr. Wilson. However, due to the county’s cap, only 1,575 acres will be allowed to be cultivated at one time. Therefore, other cannabis growers who receive a land use permit will hold on to the clearance until land becomes available.
Mr. Hart said he hopes this cap will help to appease the agricultural interests of workers along Santa Rosa Road. Though the relationship between cannabis growers and vineyard owners remains contentious, Mr. Hart said he hears the concerns of winery managers and hopes to find a harmonious balance that appeases both new and existing agricultural operations.
“I personally respect (winery manager’s) point of views and have tried to balance the county’s responsibility to protect existing agriculture and provide economic choices for the agricultural community so that they can survive and thrive,” Mr. Hart said. “This isn’t a black and white situation — this is a matter of finding balance and accommodation between all the agricultural interests in the country. That’s why we have amended the regulation significantly to accommodate those concerns.”