A 24-acre cannabis “grow” west of Buellton owned by John De Friel, a North County industry leader, was approved for zoning permits this week by the county Board of Supervisors amid unresolved air quality violations, contradictory reports on the proposed water supply and references to “misstatements and misrepresentations” made by De Friel’s lawyer at a previous hearing.
On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a countywide group that advocates for stricter regulation of the industry, argued that the wells for Central Coast Agriculture, located along the Santa Ynez River at 5645 Santa Rosa Road, would be drawing water from subterranean streams that replenish the river. The state Water Resources Control Board bans the use of such water for cannabis cultivation between April 1 and Oct. 31.
“This site can’t sustain the amount of acreage that’s proposed for it,” Marc Chytilo, a coalition attorney, told the board.
De Friel had originally claimed river water rights for both 5645 Santa Rosa Road and 8701 Santa Rosa Road, where he owns a processing plant and 30 acres of cannabis; but he canceled those applications to the state board last year. His team and county planners told the supervisors on Tuesday that the state had signed off on Central Coast’s wells for year-round use, confirming that they were unconnected to the river.
De Friel’s team also said the five-year average water use for cannabis at 5645 Santa Rosa Road was 82% lower than what previous row crops had been using there. Chytilo and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District challenged those figures, saying that they dramatically understated what the project would likely need.
But De Friel told the board he was using “drip tape” irrigation and plastic mulch and watering once a week, at most, from a metered well, beating out everyone else in the industry for low water use.
“We’ve got years of data on that now and it’s ‘dialed,’” he said.
The supervisors approved permits for De Friel’s operations at 8701 Santa Rosa in May 2021. On the heels of that approval, Chytilo recalled Tuesday, the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District found that De Friel had been running 14 diesel generators at 8701 Santa Rosa Road for months on end, in violation of district rules and the county’s cannabis ordinance.
That was in addition to two illegal diesel generators at 5645 Santa Rosa, one of which ran for 301 days. The county’s cannabis ordinance bans the use of generators except in emergencies.
Most of the generators, including the two at 5645 Santa Rosa Road, have since been removed, the district said this week — except for two large generators that are still operating at 8701 Santa Rosa Road in violation of air quality rules. Meanwhile, negotiations to determine district fines for the violations are still ongoing.
On Tuesday, the coalition appealed to the board to overturn the county Planning Commission’s approval of the Central Coast project at 5645 Santa Rosa Road. Chytilo reminded the supervisors that De Friel’s team had misled the commission by claiming that the Terlato Wine Group, owners of the Sanford Winery & Vineyards, located 4,500 and 1,500 feet to the southwest of Central Coast, respectively, were not opposed to the project.
In fact, after the Sanford owners objected, Matt Allen, De Friel’s attorney, wrote a letter to the commission “to correct any misstatements and misrepresentations” he had made; adding that he “may have misled the commission and influenced its decision.” While De Friel does have a confidential agreement with the Terlato Wine Group, Allen wrote, the group “does not in fact support the project.”
This week, in a letter to the county board, John Terlato said he and his family shared the coalition’s concerns and wanted to forestall any “effort to downplay our continued concerns with this project.”
“We oppose cannabis cultivation in proximity to our tasting room and vineyards,” he said. “We know from past cultivation on this site that odors emanating from these grows impact our business.”
On Tuesday, the board majority put aside these concerns, voting 3-1 to approve zoning permits for De Friel’s operation at 5645 Santa Rosa Road, which has been under cultivation as “legal, nonconforming” for more than five years.
“The water issue is about as clear as mud,” said 1st District Supervisor Das Williams. “That is unsettling to me, but I have to trust the regulators.”
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said, “We’ve approved much larger sites that are using water sources like this one.”
With regard to the air quality violations, 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart said, “There is a past history that is worrisome.” But the best way to address such problems, he said, was to grant De Friel a permit with conditions that could be enforced.
Board Chairwoman and 3rd District Supervisor, who represents much of the region west of Buellton where cannabis has moved into wine country, cast the sole vote against the project, saying, “It affects the river flow.”
“We’re in a 1,200-year megadrought we’ve never seen before in our history, and I’m not sure what the state water board really looked at,” Hartmann said. “Did they come out here, or are they just processing paper?”
Hartmann said that even as De Friel had become a “leader in the cannabis world in the North County, unfortunately, he’s been a leader with a somewhat troubled history.”
“I’ll be the odd person out here,” she said.
Fourth District Supervisor Bob Nelson was absent for Tuesday’s vote.
Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment.