Council Set To Endorse Grow House Abatement Measure I – October 3, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

While Measure I would attempt to reduce global warming effects of grow houses, the cannabis industry has many negative environmental effects throughout Humboldt County. The night of Sept. 24/25, someone deposited what appeared to be remnants of grow room remodeling on the banks of Liscom Slough, right under the No Dumping sign. The drywall, plastic sheeting and insulation was a change of pollution-pace for the growers, who usually dump chemical-laden soil and trim along the sensitive waterway. Photo by Ted Halstead

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

ARCATA – The City Council – most of it, anyway – will likely endorse Measure I  at tonight’s meeting.

The measure, which will be on November’s Arcata ballot, would impose a 45 percent tax on residential homes which consume extraordinary amounts of electrical energy. Advocacy for some kind of policy to abate excessive electricity use has been championed through years of Energy Committee meetings by Councilmember Shane Brinton.

Supporters, including the councilmembers who support the tax, openly acknowledge that the tax targets cannabis grow houses within city limits.

“My goal is to make them leave Arcata,” said Mayor Michael Winkler, an energy conservation expert. If effective, Measure I would push countless ongoing felony situations out of town, without use of law enforcement. It would also free police resources for other uses.

According to figures supplied by PG&E, some 633 of Arcata’s 9,500 residential meters show usage at more than 600 percent of “baseline usage,” which itself represents more than three times what an average house consumes.

While there are non-cannabis related reasons why a home might suck down that much juice – home ceramicists with kilns and some medical equipment – illegal cannabis grow houses are presumed to account for most of the excessive usage.

Apart from the neighborhood degradation, use of housing stock for agriculture and public safety impacts, the proliferation of grow houses has monkeywrenched the City’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reduction Plan for reducing energy use. Even as the City had been aiming at reducing GHG emissions by 20 percent below year 2000 levels by 2012, electricity consumption was headed in the opposite direction, increasing 30 percent between 2000 and 2006.

If it passes, the tax would net the City an estimated $1,250,000 annually. That figure would likely diminish over time if the tax had the desired effect of driving grow houses out of town. PG&E would take a one-time $650,000 cut of the revenue for implementation costs.

Winkler, who has been campaigning door-to-door for his re-election campaign, said Sunday that perhaps three-fourths of the 500 to 800 residents he’s spoken to expressed support for Measure I. The support stemmed not just from concern about energy use.

“The thing that upsets people the most is grow houses using the CARE program,” Winkler said. PG&E’s California Alternative Rates for Energy (CARE) program offers lower utility rates for low-income persons. Growers qualify only because their income doesn’t show up on official records. Other ratepayers, including the beleaguered neighbors, end up paying higher rates to subsidize the grow house that degrades their neighborhood.

“They find that very offensive,” Winkler said. “The growers are getting rich and ripping us all off on top of it.”

Some neighborhoods heavily afflicted with grow houses – Windsong, for example, where the houses are very close together – are especially militant. “People feel like there’s this loaded gun in their neighborhood,” Winkler said. “They feel embattled. It’s like a magnet for people with guns and attack dogs.”

The popularity and opposition to Measure I is difficult to ascertain, because some opponents may not wish to speak publicly and be identified.

However, the local cannabis industry supports livelihoods in many professions. There are the omnipresent trimmers, plus carpenters and electricians who install grow rooms, hydroponics stores that sell the equipment, hardware and garden stores, doctors who sell Prop 215 recommendations, attorneys who represent accused cannabis suspects, even landlords and property managers who work out deals with residential growers. How many are dependent enough on the industry to vote against the tax, or vote at all, is unknown.

“You don’t know, because it’s a subculture,” City Councilmember Alex Stillman said. Certain unlikely-sounding professions lend themselves to involvement. Dubious “massage therapists,” for example, may launder cannabis income by attributing it to arbitrary rates and imaginary customers.

The growers are our ‘one percent,’” said citizen Robin Hashem, who facilitated the “Nip It In the Bud” neighborhood gatherings that helped lead to formulation of Arcata’s cannabis regulations. She likened the grow housers to the elite plutocracy “in terms of people not caring about what happens to their neighbors.”

Well-heeled pot plutes may not care about a new tax, either. Replicating speculation first voiced during meetings of the City’s Energy Committee, Winkler said the growers may just consider the tax the cost of doing business. Growers are known to pay monthly PG&E bills in the mid-four figures, and with cash.

They could, as some predict, simply increase production to compensate for the tax, worsening problems. Winkler worries that the rate isn’t high enough to act as a deterrent.

Even some Measure I supporters don’t expect the tax to eliminate grow houses, Winkler said. “They just think they should pay some tax,” he said.

Never shy of regulating industry, Arcata could set a precedent, and Measure I is being widely watched by other grow house-hammered communities.

“If it passes, a lot of cities will try to do this,” Stillman said.

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