One of the largest cannabis greenhouse projects in the Carpinteria Valley, a close neighbor of Carpinteria High School and a flashpoint in the local pot wars, had its permit unanimously approved by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission this month, amid hopes that an emerging technology from the Netherlands will give residents some lasting relief from the “skunky” stench of pot.
The Feb. 2 vote in favor of zoning permits for Ever-Bloom, an 11-acre cannabis greenhouse operation owned by Ed Van Wingerden at 4701 Foothill Road, came on the heels of the commission’s unanimous approval on Jan. 12 of permits for Maximum Nursery, a 4-acre cannabis greenhouse at 4555 Foothill Road, owned by Ed’s brother, Winfred Van Wingerden.
Under the county’s permissive cannabis ordinance, both cultivation projects, like many others in the valley, have been allowed to operate without permits for more than four years.
In early 2020, the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a countywide advocacy group, filed a public nuisance lawsuit against Ever-Bloom and Maximum Nursery.
Between mid-2018 and last week, records show, Carpinteria residents have submitted 188 complaints to the county about the pungent smell of pot near Ever-Bloom and the soapy “laundromat” smell of the misting system that is used to neutralize it. They said the odors were driving them indoors and, in a few cases, causing breathing problems, headaches and stinging eyes.
Now, the Van Wingerdens are heading up an effort to install the latest generation of air filters in valley greenhouses to get rid of the stink of cannabis in the small beachside community. The coalition’s lawsuit is on hold. Forty of the filters, called carbon “scrubbers,” are expected to arrive in May for Maximum, and more than 100 are under installation at Ever-Bloom, a $2 million investment.
The Dutch scrubbers have been shown in small-scale tests at a Carpinteria greenhouse to eliminate more than 80% of the smelly gases emitted by marijuana plants. This month, a full-scale test of the new technology will begin at Ever-Bloom, Phil Greene, president of Ever-Bloom and Maximum, told the commission. The goal, he said, is to reduce the smell of cannabis inside the greenhouses so that it can’t be detected at the high school or in nearby residential neighborhoods.
“I’m confident that we’re on the right path as an industry and community to see drastic odor improvement in the coming months and years, as more and more farms adopt and implement the new technology,” Greene said.
Commission Hearing Sees Project Opponents, Supporters
However, members of Concerned Carpinterians, a loosely-knit group of 300 people who advocate for stricter regulations of the cannabis industry, are not so confident. They said this week that they would appeal to the county Board of Supervisors to overturn the commission’s decision and deny zoning permits for Ever-Bloom.
The critics contend that Ever-Bloom is growing marijuana too close to the high school, creating a health hazard for students and sending the wrong message to young people. The northeastern corner of the greenhouse property is 360 feet from the school property line, and three elementary schools are less than a half-mile away.
“There are dozens of damaging cannabis grows in the county, but this one is the worst,” Annie Bardach, a valley resident, told the commission. “This is the one that keeps people up at night.”
Bardach alleged that Ever-Bloom was in violation of federal drug laws related to distributing or manufacturing cannabis within 1,000 feet of a school.
But Callie Kim, deputy county counsel, told the commission, “I don’t have any concerns that there’s a violation of federal law. … We’re in a gray area where federal law treats cannabis differently from state and local law, but that’s been the case for a long time now.”
In all, seven operations totaling 50 acres of cannabis cultivation have been approved for permits or are under county review in the vicinity of the high school. Of the total, 38 acres are currently being cultivated.
Anna Carrillo, a member of the coalition and Concerned Carpinterians, said the growers should be required to hire an independent odor specialist to monitor the smell of cannabis twice a day at the high school.
“Who is going to be in charge?” she asked.
A number of Carpinterians spoke or emailed letters in support of Maximum and Ever-Bloom; they said cannabis was providing good jobs and would save farmland from urban sprawl.
Among the supporters were fellow farmers, employees of the cannabis industry, and representatives of organizations that have received donations from CARP Growers, an industry group. Winfred Van Wingerden is the founding president; he and Ed are two of 18 members with 21 cannabis greenhouse properties in the valley.
Sally Green, a Carpinteria Unified School District trustee who lives near Ever-Bloom, praised the Van Wingerdens as “generous donors to nonprofit organizations” and told the commission, “Cannabis odors have dramatically improved to where it is rare I smell anything. … Ed and his family are problem-solvers and exemplify the kind of farmer we want in Carpinteria.”
According to a spokesman for CARP Growers, the group has donated about $400,000 to local nonprofit organizations during the past three years. Of that amount, $189,000 went to the district to cover the salary of a mental health and drug abuse counselor for Carpinteria Middle School for three years.
No one from the high school administration spoke at the Feb. 2 commission hearing. But Jay Hotchner, a teacher who is president of the Carpinteria Association of United School Employees, turned in the union’s 2019 survey of district faculty and staff concerning cannabis odors.
“Our district students and colleagues have consistently expressed concern about the negative impacts of cannabis production in such close proximity to our district schools and work facilities,” Hotchner said.
At the hearing’s end, Commissioner Michael Cooney, who represents the valley, tried to clarify that the Van Wingerdens’ philanthropy was “not our issue” and “not our focus.” Cooney said he had been a baseball coach at the high school for the past four years and had often smelled cannabis there. The new scrubbers, he said, “offer hope that nothing we’ve seen before can match.”
“The odor has been prevalent and frequent and irritating at times,” Cooney said. “It doesn’t bother everybody, but it intensely bothers a number of people.”
Last fall, the members of CARP Growers signed an agreement with the coalition, their former adversary, pledging to implement “best available odor control technology” in their greenhouses.
To date, the county has approved permits for four cannabis operations that have pledged to install carbon scrubbers. In addition to Maximum and Ever-Bloom, they are Cresco, a 7-acre operation at 3861 Foothill Road, and CVW Organic Farms, a 13-acre operation on Cravens Lane.
Together, the operations represent 36 acres of greenhouse cannabis in the valley, out of 158 greenhouse acres that have been approved for permits to date.
How long will it take to install enough scrubbers to clear the air at the valley’s smelliest hot spots? For many residents, it can’t be soon enough.
“Most people ask why anyone bothers to respond to these hearings any longer,” Merrily Peebles, a resident of Paquita Drive, told the commission. “For years, Carpinteria residents request clean air, yet the growers continue on their merry way. This is a game of attrition.”
— Melinda Burns, formerly of the Santa Barbara News-Press, is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.