A perspective on agriculture and San Juan Sungrown

There has been a lot of talk about the right to farm marijuana in San Juan County, and the long laundry list of issues raised by the opponents of farms on private property adjacent to theirs. In one case the most potent tool in the fight has become a handful of words that are part of a restrictive road easement.

Some readers believe that the easement language (road and utilities to serve one single-family residence per tax parcel) justifies the position and actions of the opposing neighbors and their allies, who seek to enjoin the defendants from non-residential use entirely. Easement law is complicated and frequently lengthy to resolve, but in this case there are mitigating circumstances—if one can afford to stay in the game.

First, the road in question has been used for commercial agriculture the entire time of the easement--for hay and pasture. The land is classified in the farm-forest ag program since the 1970s (so by law it had to be making money for someone), and looking at it is obvious: a good chunk is pasture that had it not been maintained would have quickly reverted to scrub vegetation and fir trees. Long time San Juan Island residents can rattle off the names of islanders who have used it commercially. If a residential road has been used commercially for ten years is an easement still binding? Legal types that have privately commented say maybe, maybe not.

Is growing cannabis (plants in the dirt) agriculture? Is a horse farm? The neighbors appear to oppose any and all commercial use of the land, whether it is cannabis, Akhal-Teke horses or lettuce. If it is agriculture, will the law support the picking and choosing of one over another? And suppose the court does decide to prohibit commercial use of the road… do we respect the neighbors for blocking the use of it for any and all crops just because they can?

Many others hearing about the debate have picked up on the neighbors' complaints about impact to their quality of life and property values. At face value all of us agree that protecting both is desirable. What is questionable is substantiating the validity of the alleged impacts.

At the Council meeting on January 12th, the closest neighbor raised two complaints: noise and smell. Each of the 3 or 4 (out of 9) greenhouses approved by the State were operating the last time I visited the property. I could detect a low hum when standing less than 50 feet away. I can't say whether or not the closest of the neighbors can hear the fans when outside or inside his house, or how egregious the noise is, but I can tell you that it was, from my vantage point, far less significant than the everyday noise I can hear from my house on Bailer Hill Road. From my piece of paradise there is road traffic, the sounds that calves make from a nearby farm when separated from their mothers, and the cattle calling for the feed to arrive. There are the sounds of radio-controlled model airplanes, mowers and chippers, dogs barking and many other regular noises.

From the area of the farm in question there is the sound of the local gravel pit, and guns, some semi-automatic, regularly being fired at the firing range uphill. These blasts are significant enough to be heard by my friend who is legally deaf. And then there is airport traffic, new construction noise and growler planes that can be heard virtually everywhere. There are regulations in place to limit unreasonable noise. Most of us learn to live with it. Absolute silence is a luxury possible only with hundreds or thousands of acres separating us from our neighbors.

No one has demonstrated that San Juan Sungrown, the marijuana greenhouse farm, was in violation, or would have been in violation at full capacity--not the neighbors or even the SEPA hearing examiner. But somehow greenhouse cannabis owners who aren't even finished constructing their farm infrastructures are supposed to be able to prove that fan noise will not exceed allowable rural residential noise limits. What is certain though, is that 76 undeveloped acres that someone else pays taxes on would certainly afford the neighbors the kind of silence that the vast majority of us don't have, and frankly don't expect.

The same reasoning applies to smell. Do lavender fields smell? Do livestock pastures smell? Do backyard burn piles smell? What is the legal limit on odor? Can one be harmed by smelling cannabis? Is the smell of growing cannabis plants more noticeable or objectionable than any of these others, or is it simply the thought of what it is that is being grown? How do we substantiate offensive, measurable odor? You can't get high from smelling marijuana plants, but evidently despite the legality of the crop, and the relative insignificance of its smell vis a vis other fragrant farming practices, you can be morally outraged by the inconvenience and use it against your neighbor. However, If the effect is psychological rather than physical, should the property interests of residential neighbors trump one’s right to use private property, and the broader interests of the community with regard to local agriculture, tax revenues and jobs?

I could go on about property values, traffic, water levels, electricity usage and a host of the other strategic complaints levied by a handful of islanders and their attorneys over the last 6 or so months, but my intent is clear by now. It is possible to address each of these issues with thoughtful counterpoints, and where all sides demonstrate good will, practical mitigations.

Dig deeper and I believe that reasonable people without a direct self-interest in the debate will come away understanding that four acres of cannabis farms in all of San Juan County was not the sky falling; not next door, not down the road, and not on our islands. Anyone can assert their legal rights. We all know that justice is best served if you have money behind you. But winning a lawsuit doesn't always prove you are right or just, only that you had enough money and backing to afford $200 or more for each hour of a lawyers time.

The current fight is really a cautionary tale. The arguments used here to oppose a legal experiment in diversified farming (horses, vegetables and cannabis) may well provide a winning formula for opposing any kind of farm and farmer. As more homes spread into traditional farmlands, and property sales result in new neighbors intolerant of farm practices, farming in the San Juans will be at risk along with an important cultural tradition that made us what we are.

A fund has been set up to level the legal playing field for Jenny Rice of Fieldstone Farms whose farm is currently at risk due to an easement dispute. To help go to: www.gofundme.com/fieldstonefarms.

Sandy Strehlou

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