County claims City of Colusa violated CEQA; intends to file suit

Work continued at the proposed site of Green Leaf Proccesors, Inc.'s cannabis manufacturing facility on Monday, despite a warning that the County of Colusa intends to file suit against the City of Colusa for failing to comply with CEQA.

The County of Colusa has informed the City of Colusa that it intends to file a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Petition, aimed at forcing the City to conduct an environmental review for one of the recently approved commercial cannabis facilities within Colusa’s city limits.

The Notice of Intent to File CEQA Petition, which was served to the City of Colusa and Green Leaf Processors, Inc. last week, was obtained by this publication through a public records request. Through the petition, the county is seeking a court order for the City to vacate and set aside approval of the Green Leaf project, in addition to writs of mandate commanding the City to comply with all CEQA requirements. The County is also seeking a stay or injunction prohibiting the City or Green Leaf from taking any action to carry out the activity under the already-issued special use and regulatory permits and is suing for the costs of the suit and attorney’s fees.

In the petition, the county alleges that the City should have conducted an environmental review for Green Leaf Processors, Inc.’s cannabis manufacturing facility, on a property that abuts the levee on Fifth St.

According to County Counsel Marcos Kropf, the fact that the facility in question will house a commercial cannabis manufacturer has nothing to do with the county bringing the suit. He also said that the county would not necessarily be challenging other commercial cannabis projects proposed in the Cities of Williams and Colusa.

“If there’s a project and it doesn’t obtain the necessary level of review and disclosure, we will certainly look at the possibility of asserting our legal rights,” Kropf said. “But there is no anti-cannabis policy where we will challenge everything in that respect. We just want the city to do a meaningful analysis of the project, and to make an informed decision for the public.”

In the petition, the County claims that the City of Colusa violated CEQA by approving special use and regulatory permits prior to conducting a proper review of the project. The petition states that “the City’s failure to conduct a proper review of the Project under CEQA will result in the approval of a project that may have significant environmental and other impacts that will adversely affect the County.” The document lists potential impacts to county maintained roads, as well as those to law enforcement services provided by the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office. It also mentions the potential for an “increase in regulatory demands” for a number of other county departments.

The County had previously raised concerns with the Green Leaf Processors, Inc. project in June, in a letter submitted by Colusa County Community Development Director Greg Plucker. The letter, submitted to the City on June 14, stated that “the County (was) concerned with the rushed nature of this project and the shortcuts in the normal review process that have resulted.” The County requested that “the City Council take no action on the proposed special use permit application (during their June 17 meeting),” citing a “flawed” application process, and the improper use of an exemption under CEQA.

In Plucker’s letter, the County challenged the City’s assertion that the project is exempt from environmental review under CEQA’s “infill” exemption. Under the exemption cited by Colusa City Planner Bryan Stice, in-fill development projects must: be consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable general plan policies as well as with applicable zoning designation and regulations; occur within the city limits on a project site of no more than five acres substantially surrounded by urban uses; be proposed for a site that has no value as habitat for endangered, rare or threatened species; not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality; be adequately served by all required utilities and public services.

The County is claiming that the exemption was improperly applied because Green Leaf’s proposed facility “is a land use with numerous environmental impacts that require examination under CEQA…” Specifically listed in the CEQA Petition are traffic and air quality impacts, safety impacts, consistency with Riverfront District Development, and environmental impacts and safety issues arising from the chemicals or materials associated with cannabis manufacturing.

The City of Colusa, meanwhile, is standing their ground, maintaining that the exemption was properly applied. City Manager Jesse Cain said that he would be meeting with the city attorney today to discuss what action the city would be taking moving forward.

County contracted with outside counsel, CEQA specialist in June

County Counsel Marcos Kropf is not handling the CEQA petition on the behalf of the county. Instead, the law firm of Cota Cole & Huber is representing the county in the suit. The Colusa County Board of Supervisors approved a legal services agreement with the firm, in an amount not to exceed $75,000 per fiscal year, at their June 27 meeting. It was approved as a part of the consent calendar. The expense – which was already budgeted – will come from the county’s General Fund.

“Within my budget, we have a set amount of money – in excess of $100,000 – for litigation that comes up in the course of the year. That could be nothing, or it could be a lot of stuff. Routinely, fortunately, we don’t have a lot of litigation, so a lot of this goes back into the General Fund,” Kropf said. “The contract was for an amount not to exceed $75,000 per fiscal year, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll spend that.”

He added that the county will be billed at a rate of $220 per hour for the firm’s services, and $125 per hour for paralegal fees.

The effective date of the contract was retroactive to June 14 – the same date Plucker’s letter was sent to the City of Colusa – but Kropf said that the law firm “wasn’t necessarily retained just for this case.”

The agenda packet from the County Board of Supervisors’ June 27 meeting included a staff report on the need for the law firm’s services, which stated that “County Counsel anticipates that it will need the services of a law firm with regard to potential land use issues requiring specialized expertise.”

Derek Cole, a founding partner at Cota Cole & Huber and a specialist in land use and environmental law, will be the primary attorney working on County matters for which it may seek outside assistance, the staff report said. Cole, who currently serves as the City Attorney for the Cities of Oakley, Sutter Creek, and Angels Camp, previously served as County Counsel for the County of Trinity. While he was there, Cole worked with Colusa County CAO Wendy Tyler from 2009 to 2012. Tyler was the CAO for Trinity County from 2012 to 2015, and Deputy CAO from 2009 to 2012.

Brian Pearson
Brian Pearson is the former Managing Editor & Reporter for the Williams Pioneer Review. Brian joined the Williams Pioneer Review in June 2016 and is committed to bringing hyperlocal news to its readers. A few of his projects included reporting local government and the sports page.