Up to 10 cannabis farms may get green light in Alameda County, neighbors worried about smell, crime

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The rural fields of Alameda County have long been home to farmers growing grapes, pistachios and olives, beekeepers harvesting honey and ranchers raising cattle and sheep. 

By next year, agricultural land near the edges of Sunol and Livermore will also showcase farmers growing weed.

Up to 10 cannabis farms may be allowed to operate within the county, and the first cultivator is expected to be approved within the next six months. 

The green light for bud is not without controversy. Some residents have complained about the potential odors and the havoc they feel the cannabis farms will wreak on their idyllic lifestyles. 

"Cannabis farms," Robert Schock of Livermore said, "are inconsistent with the rural character of the area. It is well documented that cannabis cultivation activities are a draw from criminal activities related to stealing the product."

While there are plenty of urban grow houses in cities including Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose, these will be the first legal and permitted cannabis farms ever allowed in Alameda County. Similar cannabis farmers already are approved to operate in places such as San Mateo, Sonoma, Humbolt, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Contra Costa County is in the process of is considering one. 

The move comes after two years of discussions, the legalization of the sale of recreational marijuana last year, and is thought to help rejuvenate a dwindling agricultural industry, which saw at least a 14 percent drop in farming from 2007 to 2012, according to the most recent USDA Census. 

As for how much money the farms will generate? That hasn’t been exactly mapped out as the county has yet to require a cannabis tax giving cultivators some time to get started, according to Liz McElligott, Alameda County’s assistant planning director and the de facto cannabis cultivator point person. On Monday, a county committee is set to discuss some more technical aspects of the ordinance, regarding who will be issued permits. 

Brenda Morris, who owns Morris Ranching and raises cattle, wishes the county wouldn't give anyone permits to grow cannabis in her rural part of town as she is passionate about protecting her "family’s heritage.” She wrote the Board of Supervisors in February, worried that she will have “three clusters of cannabis cultivation grows” surrounding her property in Livermore and that the marijuana will be growing near other “multi-generation agricultural families and families with young children.” 

“Legalizing cannabis is still a fresh concept and should not be taken lightly,” she wrote. Morris noted that cannabis is still illegal by the federal government and is “highly targeted for theft and crime” and has been “historically destructive to the ecology.” 

Cindy Gallagaher of Livermore also wrote the board, worried about an increase in crime, noting an armed robbery on Flynn Road that already happened. “There will be crops worth millions of dollars…this attracts low life criminals as well as highly trained criminals who will be in our backyards,” she said.

Grower and entrepreneur Chuk Campos gets the community concerns, as cultivating cannabis is a new practice in town. But he disputes the claims that his business will attract crime or hurt the environment. 

Campos is the founder of The Oasis, located at 7033 Morgan Territory Road in Livermore, and he is awaiting his cannabis growing permits to be approved. He’s a self-described serial entrepreneur who left Silicon Valley life to live on 92 acres of farm land and who now is poised to start planting his first cannabis crops, if all goes well, by June. 

“I know people just hear ‘pot farm,’ and they imagine in disgust that cars will be lined up and down the street to get their drugs,” Campos said. “That’s not what this is going to be like at all.”

The cannabis, according to the county ordinance, will only allowed to be grown in a covered greenhouse and take up 22,000 square feet. Cannabis cultivators are only allowed to grow on agricultural land. McElligott said that decision came on the heels of community opposition to allowing cultivation in the urban unincorporated areas. The farmers will then distribute their buds to distributors and retail shops. 

Strict odor rules must be followed, and if there is a stench, permits may be pulled, the ordinance states. County rules also require that any cultivation site be at least 1,000 feet from any school, day care facility, public park or playground, drug or alcohol recovery facility and public recreation center.

Campos said he, and the other cultivators, also have invested in tight security teams to guard the property from theft.

Campos also touted all the jobs his farm will create. He has already hired farmers, scientists and entrepreneurs to work on his property. He vowed all his farming practices are environmental and sustainable. In in his report to the county, Campos touted his “novel” hybrid, hydroponic, aeroponic technology to cultivate cannabis, and vowed never to use harmful chemicals and pesticides. 

“This is new, so people are concerned,” he said. “But we have lettuce farms and tomato farms. This is just another crop.”