For the California Valley Community Services District, the fireworks show came a day late.
On July 5, the district—which provides trash services and roadwork to the small, rural community tucked away out in San Luis Obispo County's southeastern corner—held their monthly meeting. The first of several heated discussions was sparked during the routine report from SLO County Sheriff's Deputy John McKenney.
Residents peppered McKenney with questions and comments about the rapid proliferation of marijuana grows in the area. Many of those grows have been planted in sight and beside the roads that crisscross the open country. New grows are coming in every week.
- PHOTO BY JONO KINKADE
- NOTHING BUT SUNSHINE: A few years ago, cheap land and ample amounts of sunshine brought two massive solar plants to the California Valley area. Now, a rapid proliferation of marijuana grows—many roadside and right out in the open on once-vacant lots—has many residents worried, while growers say those concerns are inflated.
The grows have drawn increasing ire from residents, who worry about anything from violence to environmental impacts.
In late June, at least 120 code violation citations were dispersed throughout the valley, 90 of those to sites where marijuana was being grown. County officials say those enforcement actions are not specifically targeting marijuana grows—which thus far appear to be legal under California medical marijuana laws—but instead they're subject to an active sweep identifying any and all health and safety concerns related to county codes.
At the June 5 meeting, McKenney said that while the county needs time to sort out the current situation, existing medical marijuana laws and the possibility for a November ballot referendum aiming to legalize recreational marijuana use could make cultivation activity a fact of life.
"I don't think for one second that you're ever going to get rid of marijuana farms in the California Valley. It's a state law, it's legal," he said. Still, he expressed concerns about the crime that it may attract.
"With that comes the criminal element, people coming in and ripping people off," he said.
Some residents echoed those concerns, but suggested that the growers themselves were also criminals, an assumption that's become a hot debate.
"These selfish, money-hungry crooks must leave California Valley forever," David Webb said. "Very soon the number of growers will outnumber legal residents."
Webb and several other residents blamed the influx on "outsiders" that have come in from other areas, especially Asian growers from the Central Valley.
That hasn't sat well with members of the grower communities, who say they're farmers, not criminals, and that they're here in part because cultivation has been banned or strictly limited in several Central Valley counties.
"I know some of the residents in California Valley have concerns about the growers," Dia Moua said. "Everybody has their own rights, everybody has their own personal use to their property."
Moua said she plans to build a house on her property—which would rectify some outlying code violations—but that process will take a couple of years. She didn't want to wait to plant her cannabis garden, she said, because she depends on it for personal medicinal use.
As she and other growers in the California Valley wrestle with the ongoing code compliance effort, they're also battling the assumption that crime will inherently be a part of the operations.
New Times first reported on the issue on June 30. Since then, a handful of growers operating there have approached New Times, describing a wide spectrum that includes off-the-radar or completely organic operations, as well as those that are more quick and dirty and may have environmental concerns. Still, growers aren't thrilled with how they're being vilified, and a few have suggested that the Asian growers are being unfairly targeted.
Moua addressed that as well when she spoke at the July 5 meeting.
"Maybe because we are Asian, [people think] we're going to bring no good to the community or we're going to bring guns on the property," she said. "Go to any grower and tell them they [can't] have any guns on their property [either]."
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay