Fresno County Supervisors agreed Tuesday to split a hefty fine for medical marijuana cultivation between an out-of-town property owner and his tenant.
The 3-2 vote divided a $30,000 fine between Bret Harmon, a medical marijuana-growing tenant in a Kerman-area home, and Ronald Larson, the home's absentee owner living in the Bay Area.
Larson filed an appeal to have his side aired following a March 25 hearing where both he and Harmon were deemed responsible. Larson's notice for the hearing was late and supervisors agreed to hear his appeal Tuesday.
Supervisors said Larson was partly responsible, but assessed Harmon 90% of the financial penalties -- $27,000. Larson will face $3,000 in penalties because the plants were grown on his property.
Fines under the ordinance are $1,000 per plant.
Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said the deepest pockets most often are the landowner's, not the tenant's, which would be unfair to the Kerman property owner.
"Apportionment is the most reasonable means forward," he said.
Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who was the only supervisor voting against levying penalties against the property owner in March, said she had little choice but to support the split fines.
Supervisors Phil Larson and Henry R. Perea voted against splitting the fine. They said both the tenant and owner are responsible and and whoever had the greatest means should pay the fine.
"Until we send a strong, cohesive message to property owners, the grows will continue," Perea said. "Today, the board blinked and that was the worst thing we could have done."
During Tuesday's hearing, Harmon told supervisors he was responsible and the sheriff's office agreed. Ronald Larson's lawyer, Brady McGuinness, said supervisors should have considered their testimonials.
"Yet the board takes those circumstances and elects to go in a different direction and determine we are partially responsible," he said.
McGuinness said his client's son found an outdoor cannabis patch last summer. The sheriff's office was called and the plants were removed. He said the property manager continued routine inspections.
In January, sheriff's deputies determined that Harmon moved his marijuana garden inside the garage. They returned in February and removed the plants.
McGuinness said the responsibilities of land owners are not clearly outlined in the ordinance. McGuinness said land owners are unable to protect themselves because tenants have more rights inside a home.
He said he will discuss legal options with his client.
"I think under the circumstances he handled it as a landlord should have," McGuinness said. "He identified the problem (last year) and called the sheriff."
The county's ordinance, he said, is legally defective with exorbitant penalties.
McGuinness said that supervisors want to have property owners -- even those vigilantly opposed to marijuana cultivation on their property like Ronald Larson -- to be fined because they have deep pockets.
Another family that was fined for a marijuana garden is challenging the fines in court.
In other action, supervisors:
- Rejected a plan to widen Mountain View Road two years earlier than scheduled. The widening project was planned for 2016, but Supervisor Judy Case McNairy proposed moving the date up two years. Fellow supervisors feared accelerating the project would delay or jeopardize other road projects and possibly road funding.
- Approved using $250,000 for demolition of the former site of the Fresno County Coroner's Office. The building at Nielsen and Teilman avenues, which is the makeshift county animal shelter, will be replaced with a new shelter.
The funding allows the county to seek bids, but it's not clear whether $250,000 will pay for the entire demolition.
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