A zoning permit for SFS Farms, 87 acres of outdoor cannabis at the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills wine region was approved by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors this week with few concessions to the neighboring vintners.

SFS Farms, owned by investors in Colorado and Manhattan Beach, is the largest grow that Santa Barbara County has approved to date. If it were up and running today, it would be one of the largest cannabis operations in the United States; 87 acres is about 65 football fields’ worth of marijuana.

“I do favor large-size grows,” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who represents the Santa Maria Valley, said at Tuesday’s hearing. “It’s easier to keep an eye on 50 grows than 250 grows.”

Dan Gainey, the owner of the Gainey Vineyard just east of and downwind from SFS Farms, and Ron and Chad Melville, who own a vineyard next to Gainey’s and a wine tasting lounge a mile northeast of SFS Farms, were asking the board to overturn the county Planning Commission’s earlier approval of a permit for SFS Farms.

Short of that, they wanted the board to reduce the size of the operation and require a 500-foot setback from their grapes.

Speaking for the owners, Kurt Ammann, general manager of the Melville Winery, told the board that Chad Melville “feels very strongly that the odors from this ‘grow’ are going to have a significant impact on our outdoor tasting … he has a really hard time with the board approving something that will wind up in litigation between the two neighbors.”

The vintners fear that the “skunky” smell of so much pot will drive tourists away; and they believe that terpenes, the volatile compounds released by marijuana plants, will “taint” their premium grapes, Amman said. He noted that applications for 900 acres of cannabis cultivation have been submitted to the county for the wine country between Lompoc and Buellton.

Court Ruling

Larry Conlan, an attorney for SFS Farms, recalled this month’s ruling in the Busy Bee’s Organics case, in which a Superior Court judge found that the board had amply considered the impacts of the smell of cannabis and the concentration of cannabis operations during environmental review for the cannabis ordinance. The judge, Conlan noted, found no evidence that cannabis odors or terpenes posed a threat to other farms.

A map shows the locations of the SFS cannabis cultivation operation and existing vineyard and winery operations along Highway 246 between Lompoc and Buellton.

A map shows the locations of the SFS cannabis cultivation operation and existing vineyard and winery operations along Highway 246 between Lompoc and Buellton.  (Courtesy photo)

“That decision should give this board a lot of comfort in defending this ordinance and this project,” he said.

SFS Farms is owned by Drew Webb of Estes Park, Colorado, and Jason Kiredjian of Manhattan Beach. They are leasing land from Bob Campbell, the owner of a 965-acre historic ranch at 4874 Hapgood Road, 8 miles west of Buellton. Their cannabis operation is in an open field, not under hoops: it will be limited to two three-week harvests per year.

Lavagnino suggested that SFS Farms voluntarily provide a larger setback from the Gainey Vineyard and plant a row of trees and bushes between the two properties. Conlan said SFS Farms would agree to put in the landscaping and set back its marijuana plants 150 feet from the property line. That’s 100 feet farther than the 50-foot setback required under the county’s permissive cannabis ordinance.

“I’m appreciative,” Ammann said.

No Odor Control Required

The board’s vote on Tuesday was 4-1, with Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents much of the Santa Rita Hills region between Lompoc and Buellton, voting no. Hartmann has long favored amending the ordinance to require a more restrictive zoning permit for all cannabis, called a conditional use permit. 

A CUP would allow the board to reduce odors, limit the size of cannabis farms and draw buffer zones to avoid conflicts with “legacy” farms. The board majority vetoed the idea last year.

On Tuesday, Hartmann called SFS Farms “a gargantuan grow” and said she did not think the county should be giving “windfall profits to a few.” What’s more, SFS Farms would be operating with no odor controls in the Sta. Rita Hills, a federally-designated American Viticultural Area, Hartmann said, adding, “I think that’s really unjust …The provisions of the ordinance strait-jacket the board.”

Even as he voted in favor of SFS Farms, board Chairman Bob Nelson, who represents the western end of the Santa Rita Hills region, said he would have preferred a conditional use permit requirement “across-the-board.”

“I’m not convinced that this project will not have an effect on Melville,” he said. “The risk is on the winemakers. I really sympathize with him.”

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.