Fresno County supervisors on Tuesday took the first step toward banning marijuana growing countywide, a move that angered medicinal pot users but thrilled Squaw Valley residents who said such farms were taking over the foothill hamlet.
The vote was unanimous, which set the stage for what is a likely final approval at the Jan. 7 board meeting.
"We have a public safety issue in all corners of our county because of this," said Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, whose district includes Squaw Valley.
In opting for a total ban, supervisors passed on a second option that would have banned outdoor cultivation and allowed indoor cultivation of up to six mature or 12 immature pot plants.
The main concern was that growers would seek a way around the outdoor ban by setting up flimsy structures, putting up tarps and calling them legal indoor pot farms.
Medical marijuana users who showed up to address the board Tuesday didn't like either option, but were visibly unhappy when the board opted for the tougher of the two. One man loudly railed at board members as he left the chamber.
"Cannabis is the only medicine out there that has ever helped me in my life," said Fresno resident George Boyajian, who showed supervisors his medical marijuana card and said pot helps him with residual pain from a long-ago car accident. "Don't make me into a criminal. I am not a criminal."
Others said making marijuana grows illegal wouldn't stop the practice, but would only force it underground and beef up the black market.
But Squaw Valley residents told supervisors a different story. Though marijuana grows both large and small have popped up all over Fresno County, Squaw Valley residents have been the most vocal in seeking help to eliminate the cultivation.
Norma Jean Onyschuk said grows around her Squaw Valley residence have drilled illegal wells, cut down trees, run noisy generators and created extra traffic. But most of all, she said, they've introduced a criminal element.
"I don't feel safe walking down my street any more," she said.
Both sides offered sympathy for the opposing viewpoints -- medical marijuana supporters, for instance, said they opposed profit-driven large grows and wanted the people behind them prosecuted, while Squaw Valley residents said they understood the need for some to use medical marijuana.
But both felt their viewpoint was the correct one.
Even supervisors said they understood that some people needed medical marijuana.
"I don't have any particular issue if somebody has a lot of pain and they want to use marijuana, but right now that whole system is impacting other people who are innocent, other people who own property that can't even enjoy the property without the threat of somebody coming in with a gun and I don't think that's right," Supervisor Judy Case said.
County Counsel Kevin Briggs told supervisors they were on solid legal ground no matter which action they chose. Both a total ban and an outdoor ban, he said, "are (legally) defensible."
If given final approval in January, the ordinance will take effect the following month. Violations will be deemed a public nuisance and carry a misdemeanor charge and $1,000 fines per plant along with additional $100 fines per plant, per day, past a designated removal date.
Tuesday's decision came after residents -- especially those living in Squaw Valley -- had complained about rampant marijuana farming in the area.
In September, Fresno County supervisors supported the 12-plant proposal. But when time came for a second and final vote, more questions arose, several supervisors expressed support for a no-tolerance proposal, and staff was directed to go back to the drawing board.
More than 530 marijuana farms were identified by deputies in Fresno County as of Nov. 6, but just 113 were removed. Several of the farms this summer were near elementary schools and amounted to thousands of plants.
"We sit up here and make decisions for the general globalized good," Case said. "We can't make decisions for those we would like to help but that fall outside of that."
In other business, the board approved closure of East Clayton and East Springfield avenues where they will intersect the planned high-speed rail lines south of Fresno. The closings had been requested by the state High-Speed Rail Authority.
The vote was 4-1, with Poochigian in opposition.
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