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Property owners sue Humboldt County for improper cannabis fines, enforcement

The Times-Standard (Eureka) logo The Times-Standard (Eureka) 10/5/2022 Sonia Waraich, Times-Standard, Eureka, Calif.

Oct. 5—Moving to Humboldt County was supposed to be the silver lining for Corrine and Doug Thomas, whose Southern California home burned down in the Woolsey Fire in 2018. Their new home, near the Avenue of the Giants, was nestled among the redwoods and had a large barn Doug could use for his workshop.

But less than a week after moving in, the Thomases received a notice from Humboldt County Code Enforcement stating they had to tear the barn down because it had been used to grow cannabis two years earlier. If they didn't demolish the building within 10 days, they would face fines of $12,000 per day.

But the Thomases didn't have the $180,000 needed to demolish the barn and are now facing $1,080,000 in fines.

On Wednesday, the Thomases joined fellow Southern Humboldt County residents Blu Graham and Rhonda Olson in filing a class-action lawsuit against Humboldt County, the Planning and Building Department and the Board of Supervisors for taking a "dragnet approach" to the county cannabis abatement program, which "catches plenty of harmless conduct and innocent landowners."

In 2018, the county developed its cannabis abatement program, using satellite imagery and community complaints to identify potential violations. During the first year, cannabis code enforcement increased 700% and the county raked in $2 million.

In 2020, the county received a creativity award from the California State Association of Counties for its use of satellite imagery in the program, though it became clear early the program was also citing people who were just growing their own fruits and vegetables.

That's what happened to Graham, who owns the Mi Mochima restaurant in Shelter Cove with his wife. Graham began growing vegetables for the restaurant in greenhouses on a property he bought in 2012.

In May 2018, Graham received a notice of violation, stating he was in violation for cultivating cannabis, having an unpermitted structure and grading land to install a rainwater catchment pond without permits, which Graham said was dug in 2015 to aid the local fire district.

When Graham contested the violations, the complaint states he was pressured to enter into a settlement agreement with the county that would require him to admit guilt and pay $30,000 in fines, subsequently $20,000 and then $10,000 in place of an administrative hearing.

The class-action suit is intended to end the county's "unconstitutional code enforcement practices" and "life-ruining fines," said Jared McClain, attorney with the nonprofit, public interest law firm Institute for Justice, which is representing the property owners.

"It relies on satellite images to find anyone with a garden or greenhouse and accuses them of growing cannabis without a permit," McClain said. "It then forces them to prove their innocence at a hearing the county never provides."

Impacted property owners can contact the Institute for Justice via its website at ij.org.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0504.

(c)2022 Times-Standard, Eureka, Calif. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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