In Santa Barbara, the War Between Weed Growers and Their Neighbors Is Getting Nasty

The idyllic seaside county has become a marijuana mecca—and some residents think that (literally) stinks

The meeting took place January 29 in a packed assembly room of the Santa Barbara County Administration Building deep in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara’s Spanish Colonial-style municipal nexus; six months later it still induces shudders among most everyone who endured it. Even Santa Barbara County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, a man known for his unshakable affability, emerged shaken. Lavagnino chairs Santa Barbara’s five-member Board of Supervisors. In a previous life he worked as a stand-up comedian; as county supervisor, he often uses humor to disarm. But none of the people shoehorned into that January meeting was in the mood for levity.

“There was more tension in that room than at any meeting I’ve been in since I’ve been in office,” Lavagnino said. “The tone was just so nasty.”

What could turn the famously well-behaved denizens of this paradise by the sea into raging Santa Barbarians?

In a word: cannabis.

marijuana santa barbara
Constituents attend
a public meeting on weed cultivation

Two years ago, more than 65 percent of Santa Barbara County residents voted in favor of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational pot statewide. But because of a fluke in fiats laid down by Sacramento and the local Board of Supervisors, Santa Barbara emerged as the only coastal county with no limit on the amount of acreage on which cannabis can be cultivated outdoors. If the efforts to curb California’s black-market cultivation continue to gather momentum, the county could emerge as the state’s Fertile Crescent for legally grown pot.

Santa Barbara County growers have already secured the largest number of temporary licenses issued by the state for legal cultivation of marijuana. The county accounts for 2,582 of the 9,445 state licenses issued as of December 31, and has the largest collection of concentrated landholdings permitted for cannabis cultivation. The county granted temporary licenses for cannabis growers to operate on about 500 acres of farmland. (Wine producers, by contrast, have access to 21,000 acres.) Many of those temporary permits will not survive the state-mandated transition into “provisional” licenses, and fewer still will become the coveted annual licenses. But even after this winnowing, it’s all but certain Santa Barbara County will still have the most licenses for cultivation and the biggest concentration of legally grown cannabis in the state.

In other words, almost one-third of all California cultivation licenses are now in 2 percent of the state’s land mass. That’s not to say that Santa Barbara County is growing the most pot in California; Humboldt County and the fabled Emerald Triangle still claim that distinction. And by conservative metrics, California growers already produce eight times more product than state residents can absorb. The price of weed has fallen from about $3,000 a pound a few years ago to $800. That could seriously hurt not just those in the trade, but government entities counting on cannabis-based tax revenues.

That prospect has touched off an ugly war, pitting some of Santa Barbara County’s old guard against what it perceives as an invasion of entrepreneur-arrivistes sowing primo seeds and trailing a mighty malodor.

Everyone in the county knows The Smell—a miasmic funk that seeps out of the area’s pot-growing greenhouses and creeps into town as if on little blissed-out cat feet. The Smell afflicts some neighborhoods more than others; depending on the wind it ebbs and flows but never disappears entirely. Especially hard hit has been the small farming community of Carpinteria, tucked into the county’s southeast corner. Once best known as home of the “world’s safest beach” and the annual Avocado Festival, Carpinteria is now home to 34 acres of cannabis-infused greenhouses that unrelentingly make their presence apparent. Brad Stein, a Carpinteria councilman for 28 years, said The Smell greets him every morning when he wakes and every night when he takes a walk. Joan Esposito, a 35-year resident, complains that it exacerbates her asthma. It’s so bad, she said, that her grandkids won’t visit anymore.

So those who packed the county supervisors’ chambers in January had little interest in compromise. For almost five hours, speaker after speaker accused the supervisors of kowtowing to an industry that, they claim, enjoys undue access and excessive influence. The atmosphere became so charged that Lavagnino threatened to have bailiffs remove members of the crowd who wouldn’t stop jeering or hissing.

Legions of seniors bused in from northern Santa Barbara County took turns attacking the pot producers for ruining the bucolic splendor of their backcountry neighborhoods and alleging the growers were affiliated with the Armenian and Russian mobs. From Solvang, famous for its pastries and windmills, came busloads of retirees incensed at The Smell emanating from a single greenhouse with plans to expand. And from the Santa Ynez Valley came a faction from the county’s wineries demanding relief from the olfactory invasion and asking pointedly if the supervisors really wanted to risk disrupting an industry that pumps $2 billion a year into the local economy. At a particularly contentious point in the proceedings, deputies from the county’s Sheriff’s Office ejected William “Bubba” Hines, a onetime oil-and-gas man from Louisiana and now a vintner from the Santa Ynez Valley, for nearly coming to blows with John De Friel, the Johnny Appleseed of Santa Barbara’s cannabis industry. Hines denied threatening De Friel but admitted, “I told him he was an asshole.”

De Friel is leading the advance of growers from the outlaw shadows into the mainstream. While he may bemoan the costs of the new regulations, De Friel accepts them; others in the cannabis trade have fiercely resisted. A palpable tension exists between the new and the old schools. “They’re pissing in the water I have to drink from,” said Graham Farrar, a Carpinteria-based commercial grower.

Compared to the counties next door—San Luis Obispo and Ventura—Santa Barbara has been uncommonly welcoming to new cannabis operations. Critics have been quick to blame Mollie Culver, who for two years functioned as the industry’s chief lobbyist in the county. Culver is a chain-smoker in a town where smoking has been all but banned and acclaimed as a political strategist. When she was appointed chief of staff to newly elected Supervisor Gregg Hart, many of the anti-cannabis crusaders cried foul. Culver insists she’s severed ties with her previous clients, but her critics remain unconvinced.

As tempting a target as Culver has been, she pales in comparison to California Solutions, one of Sacramento’s premier lobbying firms and widely credited with eliminating the initial size constraints on cannabis grows. Officials also say a tight deadline imposed by the state forced Santa Barbara County to speed-draft its version of the ordinance or be forced to accept one-size-fits-all rules.

County Deputy CEO Dennis Bozanich points out that the cannabis ordinance was drafted after multiple public hearings. “I get some people not being happy with the results—that happens,” Bozanich said. “But to wage guerrilla warfare and suggest something nefarious or insidious went on, that really troubles me.”

Despite the animosity it has fanned, commercial cannabis has given rise to alliances that defy Santa Barbara County’s traditional political fault lines. Lavagnino and First District Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Carpinteria, cochaired the ad hoc subcommittee at which many of the details of Prop. 64 legalization were hashed out. A local reporter dubbed them the “Doobie Brothers” for their energetic support of the pot industry, but “the Odd Couple” would have been more apt. Williams was an early proponent of medical marijuana and the legalize-regulate-tax-it school and believes weed never should have been criminalized. Lavagnino was an exemplar of the pre-Trump Republican Party, toiling for years as staff assistant for Elton Gallegly, the now-retired cranky conservative congressman who represented California’s 24th District. Pot allowed Williams and Lavagnino to overcome their obvious political and stylistic differences by providing a path by which the county could generate new revenue that miraculously did not involve oil drilling, always politically radioactive in these parts.

No local family personifies the political ambidexterity of cannabis as dramatically as the Van Wingerdens, who in the 1980s built an empire growing cut flowers in the Carpinteria Valley. The Van Wingerden clan—five Dutch brothers who fled Holland’s creeping socialism in the 1960s—settled in Santa Barbara County and erected massive greenhouses filled with gerbera daisies. Politically, the Van Wingerdens could not have been much more conservative. Led today by Rene Van Wingerden, the family became pillars of the local Republican Party and major benefactors of local philanthropies, adorning their office walls with signed photos of themselves with the likes of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

By 2012 the bloom was off the daisy business, which had been laid low by Canadian imports. Ivan Van Wingerden, a third-generation grower, looked for alternatives. At the time, cannabis legalization was heating up. One of his aunts had cancer, and cannabis helped quell the side effects of her treatment, Ivan recalled. The family already had the infrastructure, so investment would be minimal. Holland, Ivan pointed out, exports the second-most amount of food in the world while occupying a land mass one-twelfth the size of California. Thus did the Van Wingerdens start cultivating pot in 2014.

Growers of Santa Barbara County’s once-dominant cash crops have unsurprisingly bristled at cannabis’s ascension. Last autumn Carpinteria school board member Maureen Claffey started raising a ruckus about a site going in next-door to her home. Claffey is a young mother whose family settled in Carpinteria in 1863 and still grows avocados here. The neighboring property is owned by the Van Wingerdens; the operation is managed by Cresco Labs, a Chicago-based cannabis firm. All the avocado trees had been chopped down, Claffey complained, sketchy guys looking for work began showing up, and a gun safe was mistakenly delivered to her house. (A Cresco spokesperson insisted it was an ordinary safe.)

Claffey refers to her neighborhood—a hot spot for odor complaints —as “Carpentucky” or “Potlandia.” She summed up the new industry as “light industrial pharmaceuticals, not agriculture,” or “Little Pharma.” When Carpinteria growers made a $1,200 donation to the school district via the Rotary Club, she accused them of money laundering. When Ivan Van Wingerden agreed to donate $28,000 to equip a school lab, she cited a school policy barring donations that might promote drug consumption. The district backed off.

Given that the district is facing a nearly $1 million deficit, such a stand has not stood Claffey in good stead with some board members. When she suggested the district provide board members with health insurance, some mothers, including a former board member, started a Facebook campaign to get her to step down. She ultimately did.

Faced with mounting outrage, some county cannabis growers began spraying a “vapor curtain” of essential oil mists—usually a combination of sage and lemon verbena—that apparently neutralizes the pungent cannabis terpenes. Results are promising. A vapor curtain at a Van Wingerden greenhouse rendered the scent all but undetectable. But a grower across the street hasn’t added one, and the odor is still unavoidable. Vapor curtain systems cost more than $100,000 to install and $10,000 a month to operate; some growers installed the systems then cut costs by not running them. “If most of us have systems in place, but not all of us do, we have a problem,” said Farrar.

Meanwhile a showdown is looming in Santa Barbara’s wine country. The Smell from cannabis plantations is intruding on the county’s tasting rooms, which account for 78 percent of the wineries’ retail sales. Wine industry reps are preaching the gospel of coexistence with the pot growers while pushing for stricter zoning, limiting cultivation on smaller parcels, and odor-control requirements.

Williams and Lavagnino insist the problems begat by the county’s cannabis industry are the work of bad actors who will be quickly weeded out by stringent regulations. People, they say, just need to be patient. But the terpenes that give cannabis its defining odor are penetrating and invasive. And that means whether peace can be restored in Santa Barbara depends entirely on the cannabis industry’s ability to quell The Smell.

RELATED: Marijuana Farms Have Found a Way to Keep Their Stink From Irking the Neighbors

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