Commercial cannabis refund claim forms are available at http://cannabis.calaverasgov.us/Cultivation-Inquiries.

A chapter in Calaveras County’s divisive cannabis saga has come to a close, with more than 700 farmers who registered to grow pot under a 2016 urgency ordinance now eligible for partial registration fee refunds of about $1,000 each.

Full refunds of $5,000 each will go to about 25 growers who renewed their registrations before the previous Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to ban commercial cannabis a year ago in January 2018, Peter Mauer, planning director for Calaveras County, said Tuesday.

Animosity and ill feelings between pro-cannabis advocates and ban proponents still remains, and the future of cannabis in Calaveras County remains undecided. Some growers have urged county authorities to rescind the ban, keep their refunds and apply them to future registrations, so they can get back to work growing more cannabis. Opponents of commercial cannabis have made it clear they oppose the refunds, they want the leftover registration funds audited. Both sides agree the past three-and-a-half years have been hell.

The current Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 last week to adjust the county’s 2018-19 budget to cover refunds from a fund designated for medical cannabis cultivation registrations in the amount of $940,043. The budget move required four-fifths of the board’s approval.

A total of 736 growers are eligible for partial refunds of about $1,000 from their original $5,000 registration fees, Maurer said. Each grower seeking a refund will have to apply to the county.

“We had trouble contacting some of them when they registered,” Maurer said. “It will be up to them to apply.”

The debate over cannabis cultivation, commercial, medical and personal, has roiled Calaveras County since the devastating 2015 Butte Fire scorched 110 square miles of ranches and watersheds where some people were already growing pot for decades. An urgency ordinance allowing commercial cultivation in May 2016 preceded state legalization approved by voters in November 2016.

Established local growers, formerly illegal, applied for registration, and a Green Rush of outsider growers moved in to buy up burned properties. The first harvest season brought a new, funky smell to some neighborhoods, cannabis-associated crimes included robberies and murders, and many longtime residents opposed what they viewed as a cannabis free-for-all.

Calaveras County collected $3.68 million in total registration fees under the urgency ordinance, Maurer said. More than 700 growers applied for registration, 194 were actually approved for commercial cultivation registrations, and another 73 were incompletely processed and considered legally cultivating, Maurer said.

The county spent cannabis cultivation registration fees on processing applications, making inspections, doing enforcement, and conducting hearings, Maurer said.

Trevor Wittke of the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance said Tuesday the $940,043 approved for refunds is left over registration fees the county was unable to spend during the existence of the commercial cannabis program. Proposition 26 requires the county to return these unused fees, Wittke said.

“Big picture, this is irrefutable evidence that regulations produced more revenue for the county than it cost the county to implement regulations,” Wittke said.

The cannabis registration fee refunds have nothing to do with outstanding lawsuits brought by growers who are now out of business, Wittke said. The refunds are “just house cleaning on the county’s part to close books on the urgency ordinance.”

Wittke said the primary outstanding unresolved lawsuit brought by former growers against Calaveras County is the owners of Golden State Herb and Rainbow Farms seeking $16 million in damages, claiming the county had no right to collect taxes until state licenses were issued.

In the Board of Supervisors vote on refunds last week, in favor were Gary Tofanelli, District 1, Jack Garamendi, District 2, Merita Callaway, District 3, and Ben Stopper, District 5. Dennis Mills, District 4, opposed.

Rebecca Callen, the county auditor, told the Board of Supervisors that verifying who gets refunds will not be a simple process, not as simple as writing checks, because some applicants the county doesn’t know where they are. The county might have to keep some funds on hand for three years when claimants come forward.

Mills asked how the county will figure out fair and equitable refunds and if Callen would be in favor of an independent audit of the program. Callen responded the board would have to provide a clear definition for the audit’s scope of work, including consensus on what kind of audit.

“We don’t generally audit a fee program,”Callen told Mills. “There is no legal requirement that this program be audited.”

Bill Wilson, whose wife, Joan Wilson, was a registered grower outside Angels Camp, said they paid $5,000 per farm for regulations and they personally lost $100,000 in the now-banned program. It was a legal program, a fee-based program, and the county didn’t spend the fees, so it’s time to give them back, Wilson said.

Wittke asked the Board of Supervisors about whether more than 700 original applicants would get averaged refunds, lost interest, and how the registration fees were spent.

“While people would like their money back, we would like more than that to get back to work and move forward with our lives having learned the lessons of the past few years,” Wittke said.

Bob Burch, a grower and a Calaveras Cannabis Alliance board member, told the Board of Supervisors he’ll accept his refund, but he wanted them to know his payroll was “50 times what this refund is, those were all local boys and girls that were coming and getting paid and spending that money locally.”

Burch said his business did more in revenue than the $940,000 the board was considering as refunds, “and there was hundreds of businesses like mine. The economic effect of this ban is devastation and I would like my job back, but you know I’ll take the money you took from me back instead.”

Mark Bulger, a former grower with Rimrock Farms, told the board to keep his refund money, put it toward his next registration, and put pot farmers back to work.

Vicky Reinke, a vocal opponent of commercial cannabis, said she wanted to know why the registration money was being given back. She said she can’t imagine why the county didn’t spend it. She said paperwork indicated the fees were non-refundable.

Al Segalla with the Calaveras County Taxpayers Association said there was a basic morality involved. “Did the county honor its agreement?” Segalla asked. “Obviously no, they cancelled the program after taking people’s money, it’s that simple.”

Bill McManus, head of the Committee to Ban Commercial Cultivation of Marijuana in Calaveras County, told the board he thinks they’re trying to end a legacy, a black stain on the county that existed for three years, a colossal mistake that was made.

“None of you were here when it first happened,” McManus said. “But we were told a $5,000 fee would pay for everything, and a year or two later it could be as high as $11,000. We have applications that have two inspections and some that have 10. We have applications where they grew for two years with one fee. We have grows out there right now that still have not been cleaned up or inspected. And yet you want to take this money and give it back now. I understand. You’re done with it. You want the mistakes to go away so you can start over again. Well I’m telling you another colossal mistake is not going to fix this one.”

Prapanna Smith, a former registered grower who has moved from Callaway’s District 3 to Mills’ District 4, told Mills “You had a program, it does not exist, you have money left over, this is finance, this is not political, go ahead and do the right thing and follow the law, sir.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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