Residents fear marijuana nurseries west of Modesto will change their way of life

Residents in the rural area around Shiloh School west of Modesto strongly opposed two permits for marijuana nurseries last week.

The Stanislaus County Planning Commission recommended denying one of the nursery permits on California Avenue, south of Maze Boulevard, and also turned down a permit for indoor cultivation on El Roya Avenue near the Beard Industrial District in southeast Modesto.

Adding fuel to Shiloh-area opposition was that project proponent Legacy Nursery is partly owned by a county planning commissioner, Marc Etchebarne. Residents also said county Board Chairman Terry Withrow had disclosed at a community meeting on the Legacy proposal that Etchebarne’s father is a client of Withrow’s accounting business.

Etchebarne did not participate in Thursday’s planning commission hearing. Withrow confirmed that a dairy nutrition business owned by Etchebarne’s father is a client of his accounting firm. Withrow said he will recuse himself when the Legacy permits are considered by county supervisors.

Thursday’s planning commission actions were only recommendations, and all three cannabis permits are tentatively set for March 6 hearings before the Board of Supervisors.

Mark Wolfe, who lives on Broyles Road, said Legacy’s nurseries threaten to “change our way of life,” and he asked the planners for time so he could hire an attorney. The cannabis business would be public knowledge, attracting criminals looking to commit robberies, and other residents could be victimized if dangerous people knock on the wrong door, speakers said at Thursday’s hearing.

Residents said it wouldn’t be safe for dairy employees in the area or property owners who irrigate at night.

Legacy proposes, in the 5700 block of California, to enclose a 2,450-square-foot pole barn and use 5,000 square feet on the top floor of a barn for growing starter cannabis plants and supplying them to licensed cultivators. The business would also construct a 7,800-square-foot nursery canopy and office and two 10,000-square-foot greenhouses in phases at the southeast corner of California and South Hart Road.

Jennina Chiavetta, a partner in Legacy Nursery, said surveillance cameras will watch the nurseries and Legacy will pay for a security patrol. The nursery sites in the 5700 and 6800 block of California are 2.7 miles and 1.7 miles from Shiloh School on Paradise Road, respectively, greater than the 600-foot buffer required by law.

Chiavetta said nonflowering cloned plants will be sold wholesale to licensed cultivators and retailers. Nursery plants don’t have the strong odors of mature marijuana plants. “We are plant scientists; we are not drug dealers,” Chiavetta, noting that she and Etchebarne are UC Davis alumni.

County planners voted 3-2 against the use permit in the 5700 block of California, citing neighborhood compatibility concerns, but approved Legacy’s second nursery site.

Commission Chairman Scott Hicks said the Legacy proposal complied with all of the county’s commercial cannabis permit requirements. Hicks said he previously had serious issues with allowing commercial cannabis in Stanislaus County and voted against Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana statewide in November 2016.

Hicks said he had adjusted his thinking based on projections that 80 percent of cannabis activity would remain illegal.

The county plans to issue up to 61 commercial cannabis permits, including seven for retail shops, and has been processing applications for months.

Planners turned down a permit for Prem Gen Corp., doing business as Uncle Budd’s Nursery, which wants to keep growing commercial marijuana indoors in the 500 block of El Roya Ave., south of Yosemite Boulevard. The cultivation business was in operation before passage of Proposition 64, operating under the state’s medicinal cannabis act of 1996, the applicant said.

Planners frowned on Prem Gen’s request for a waiver on the county’s 200-foot setback requirement, designed to keep commercial cannabis sites at least 200 feet away from homes. The setback aims to protect residents from being overwhelmed by pungent odors. Prem Gen proposed a cultivation, nursery and distribution business using three 5,000-square-foot warehouses in an industrial-zoned area, with multiple dwellings within 200 feet.

Planning Commissioner Marjorie Blom said she could allow the waiver because of the location in an industrial area and because some of the homes have been unoccupied for years. Other planners disagreed, citing concerns it could set a precedent for waiving the residential setback.

Angela Freitas, director of county planning and community development, said a few other cannabis permit proposals in the county’s pipeline are also asking for waivers on the residential setback.

Last month, the commission approved the county’s first two commercial cannabis permits, allowing indoor cultivation and distribution at two locations on Jerusalem Court, north of Kiernan Avenue, within a planned industrial zone north of Modesto.