In a sandy draw of the Santa Rita Hills, a cannabis company is planning to erect hoop greenhouses over 147 acres — the size of 130 football fields — to create the largest legal marijuana grow on earth.
Across the Santa Ynez River, two miles away, a farmer is planting the planet’s second biggest grow, at 83 acres. Several operations are already as large as what industry trackers say are the world’s other behemoths, in Colorado and British Columbia, with a dozen more slated to be much bigger.
Santa Barbara County’s famed wine region — with its giant live oaks and destination tasting rooms — and the quiet beach town of Carpinteria have become the unlikely capital of California’s legal pot market.
Now row after row of white plastic hoop houses sprawl amid rolling vineyards and country estates, and coastal bungalows and schools carry the whiff of backcountry Humboldt.
Lobbied heavily by the marijuana industry, Santa Barbara County officials opened the door to big cannabis interests in the last two years like no other county in the nation, setting off a largely unregulated rush of planting in a region not previously known for the crop. County supervisors voted not to limit the size and number of marijuana grows. They chose not to vet growers’ applications for licenses or conduct site inspections.
They decided to tax the operations based on gross revenue instead of licensed square footage, as Humboldt and Monterey counties do, even though the county has no method to verify the numbers. So far, the county has received a fraction of what its consultants had predicted.
Santa Barbara officials are not alone in trying to lure cannabis cultivation. But the other local governments seeking this revenue stream are mostly in remote, economically depressed regions, not high-priced coastal and tourist areas.
Left, marijuana growing in a steel-frame greenhouse at Brand Farms in Carpinteria at the southern end of Santa Barbara County. The industry says it provides well-paid jobs. Right, a worker trims and sorts marijuana at Brand Farms. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
In Santa Barbara, growers and their hired advocates developed close ties to two county supervisors, Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino, who pushed for and won nearly every significant measure the cultivators asked for. A third supervisor elected in November, Gregg Hart, hired a marijuana lobbyist as his chief of staff.
The cannabis boom has caused a backlash from residents and vintners afflicted by the smell, and farmers who fear spraying their avocados could make them financially liable for tainting multimillion-dollar marijuana crops. Fearing for their businesses and quality of life, they have organized into activist groups, hired attorneys, filed lawsuits and zoning appeals.