Smells like skunk… Carpinteria greenhouses turn to pot

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If you drive down Foothill Road in the small, Central Coast city of Carpinteria at certain times of the day, when the wind is blowing in a particular direction, you may get a big whiff of marijuana.

“I have guests that come for the weekend and they tell me I have a skunk under my house. My granddaughter doesn’t want to come because Nana’s house smells,” said Sandy Kuttler. She’s lived in Carpinteria for 38 years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that she started to notice the smell.

There are times, said Kuttler, when it’s like getting sprayed by a skunk. It gives her headaches and wakes her up at night, even when the windows are closed.

Carpinteria was once known as the flower growing capital of the country. But now, many of the greenhouses that once grew Gerber Daisies and Orchids are filled with marijuana plants. And as residents living near those greenhouses have found, flowering marijuana plants do not smell like roses.

Carpinteria residents Sandy Kuttler and Sally Eagle look out at dozens of greenhouses from Kuttler's deck. The smell of marijuana gives them headaches, but it's hard to pinpoint which greenhouses are the culprit. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Kuttler’s house looks out on over a dozen greenhouses – and that’s the problem. In order to make a formal complaint to the county about the smell, she needs to provide a physical address. But, it’s hard to tell where the smell is coming from.

“We get complaints a lot, but we don’t very often get complaints that include addresses,” said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams, who equates it to reporting a burglary, but not saying where it happened. “We need an address in order to do enforcement.”

Even if county officials knew exactly which greenhouse caused which annoying smell, it’s not clear they could do anything about it. That’s because the county has no permitting structure for cannabis operations. In other words, said Williams, there are no regulations in place to make sure pot growers are being good neighbors.

The problem will likely get worse before it gets better.

After Proposition 64 passed in November 2016, growers began preparing for when recreational marijuana becomes legal next year. In Carpinteria, many flower growers began converting their greenhouses. Others sold or leased their infrastructure to pot growers.

The county responded by putting a ban on any new cannabis operations until county and state regulations get worked out. But here’s the problem: no one has a record of what existed before the ban. So, every grower claims they were already around.

“There is just too much gray area as to what are legitimate operations and what are not,” said Williams, who calls it a ban without a plan. “Once a permit is required, it becomes much simpler.”

A board of supervisors hearing regarding a status report on cannabis activities in July 2017 drew a crowd of local residents, growers and cannabis business representatives. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Williams and the rest of the Board of Supervisors hope to vote on a permitting structure by March 2018. If Williams has his way, that permit will include a requirement that growers install technology that traps and filters the smell inside the greenhouses so it doesn’t spread.

“If operations choose to not do odor control, then they will not get a permit and we will have the right to shut them down,” he said.

The Cannabis Business Council of Santa Barbara County supports this requirement. 

“We want to be good neighbors,” said Mollie Culver, a member of the council who represents cannabis cultivators. “This industry is a very responsible industry. We want to be community partners, and we want to ensure that all legal growers are abiding by state and county regulations, including employing the odor control technology.”

But, smell abatement technology isn’t cheap. Buying and installing the equipment can cost upwards of $100,000 for large scale operations.

“They’re definitely expensive systems to put into place, but that’s something we expect to be include in the price,” said Culver. “Like any business, there is investment and overhead. So, I don’t see it as prohibitive in any way.”

There are about 280 acres of greenhouse space in Carpinteria. They used to primarily house flowers. Now, more and more are being converted into cannabis growing operations. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

According to a voluntary registry released this month, over 200 people currently grow in Santa Barbara, and another 300 people plan to. They cluster in Lompoc, Buellton and Carpinteria, and they’ll be the first in line to get a permit, come next year.

Until then, Sandy Kuttler is planning some summer trips to avoid the smell.

“There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “I have to learn to live with it.”

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