Less than three months after San Benito County’s ordinance regulating industrial hemp went into effect, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a 45-day moratorium on cultivation at its Dec. 10 meeting. The county heard concerns from residents regarding odor, zoning and security.
Supervisors failed to approve a moratorium by one vote in April when they were drafting the hemp ordinance, citing concerns over odor mitigation and code enforcement.
According to the Dec. 10 meeting agenda packet, sites with a valid conditional use permit or a development agreement are exempt from the moratorium.
In a presentation to the board, Agricultural Commissioner Karen Overstreet said a total of 586 acres of hemp are cultivated at 26 sites in San Benito County. Of those sites, the complaints she received were focused on four. Possible solutions include increasing setbacks, reducing acreage and keeping cultivation away from public roads.
Frank Russell was among several county residents living near hemp grows who spoke at the meeting. He said that the skunk-like smell was overwhelming and affecting residents’ way of life. He also said surrounding property values are being affected.
“Who in the hell would want to buy a house that smells like a skunk?” Russell asked. He suggested that hemp should only be allowed in low population areas or those with strong winds that will blow the odor away. “We are the collateral damage that’s been caused by the legalization of hemp without fully understanding its impact.”
Hemp became a legal crop last December following adoption of the 2018 Farm Bill. County supervisors unanimously adopted a local ordinance regulating hemp cultivation on Sept. 24.
Spring Grove Road resident Kim Braiton said that while hemp cultivators said the odor would only be an issue during growing season, the smell lingers in her house even though the season is over. She also said Spring Grove School students are being impacted.
“There are children playing all day at that school smelling this horrible smell,” Braiton said. “Is it good for them? Is it a safe environment? They really need to look into this and they need to stop the growing, at least around here.”
Christian Pillsbury, owner of Eden Rift Vineyards, said he looked at the hemp issue from two perspectives—as an entrepreneur and as a father. As a business owner, he said he does not begrudge anybody doing legal business that does not affect neighbors, and added that three days a week there is “an overwhelming smell in our tasting room where we’re trying to introduce people to Hollister products.”
As a father, Pillsbury said he struggled to have his children feel safe at home when headlights flash in through the windows in the middle of the night.
“I don’t know how to make them feel better when police response is half an hour away,” Pillsbury said. “And putting up automatic gates and bollards doesn’t stop people from driving in through our vineyards.”
Tony DeRose of DeRose Vineyards also said he and his neighbors have encountered trespassing, attempted break-ins and increased littering along Cienega Road.
“[I’m] not looking to shut down any lawful business, but when it is impacting the business of neighbors it’s become an issue,” he said.
DeRose was not aware of any hemp cultivation near his property until one morning he went on searching for what he thought was a skunk. He said he found out what the smell was that afternoon.
Several people involved in the hemp industry, such as Kevin Moore, said they were in favor of revising the ordinance to address neighbors’ concerns. However, hemp advocates opposed the temporary moratorium and cited the benefits of the industry for San Benito County.
“We have contributed well over $4 million dollars to this community,” Moore said. “Local labor, local staffing agencies, irrigation supply companies, water companies, food safety companies, and the list goes on and on.”
Moore asked the board to allow stakeholders to be involved in addressing the issues by revising parcel sizes and zoning.
“We have a right to do business in our community where we’ve resided since the 1940s and worked in agriculture since the 1940s,” Moore said.
Neil Kelly, who owns a property leased for hemp cultivation on Comstock Road, also supported the growers. He said neighbors were “overemphasizing” the odor issue, that there was security making rounds to protect the neighborhood and that the industry was creating revenue for the county. He also said the cultivator on his property hired a streetsweeper to keep the street clean.
“I’ve never seen a farmer do that, and I’ve seen a lot of mud on the road in San Benito County,” Kelly said.
San Benito County Sheriff Captain Eric Taylor also gave a presentation at the meeting, noting the increased amount of calls and complaints since the hemp ordinance went into effect. He said the Sheriff’s Office responded to calls ranging from suspicious activity, trespassing, theft, and one case of an assault with a deadly weapon.
Taylor spoke about one hemp cultivation location in the 6900 block of San Felipe Road, and said the department received 39 calls for service that resulted in 11 arrests.
Following a short discussion, the ad hoc committee made up of Supervisors Peter Hernandez and Anthony Botelho committed to revise the hemp ordinance, with a goal to approve changes at the board’s Jan. 18 meeting.
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