WILL PARRISH: Stuart Bewley’s Outlaw Grows





The Mendocino County Supervisors will soon vote on a series of environmental protections that would include putting 714,000 acres of rangeland off-limits to new cannabis cultivation permits and adopting an impressively strict oak woodlands protection ordinance, while also allowing existing growers to become legally-permitted.

The end of marijuana prohibition has opened up the possibility of a damaging “green rush,” which these measures aim to prevent.

The person who has most vocally opposed these protections is Stuart Bewley, one of Mendocino County’s wealthiest landowners, who made his fortune in the wine industry and has now moved aggressively into the cannabis business..

I’ve described in the past about how marijuana growing is often used as a scapegoat for environmental degradation, but it’s also the case that extreme marijuana grows are a major source of environmental damage, land speculation, and cultural upheaval, as many people who have opposed damage from the timber industry have also pointed out.

As with so many of Mendocino County-based backwoods cannabis proprietors, Stuart Bewley’s journey to the rugged hills and gullies of Bell Springs and west Laytonville began during the 1970s. In that heady time, young idealists flocked to the remote and disjointed terrain of California’s northern coastal mountains, in collective pursuit of a better life in a better place. Desperate to earn a living, some of the more entrepreneurial members of their sub-culture soon developed breakthrough techniques for cultivation ofsinsemilla, fostering what has budded out into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Bewley followed a different — but oddly parallel — track to California’s remote hinterlands. In the mid-’70s, he and a friend were busy mixing wine, fruit juice and carbonated water in washtubs at Santa Cruz beach parties, thus laying the ground for an idiosyncratic beverage brand called California Wine Coolers — which Bewley co-founded. The brand became a ubiquitous fad, one that rose and fell at roughly the same time — and nearly as quickly — as parachute pants and heavy metal “hair” bands. In 1985, California Wine Coolers stood as the sixth largest producer among all domestic wine companies.

That year, Bewley and his partner made a well-time sale of the brand for a whopping (reported) $146 million. Still in his 30s, Bewley invested some of his newfound riches in a 14,000-acre swath of firs, oak savannah, and oak woodlands in far northern Mendocino County, known as Adanac Ranch.

Today, piling more improbability on an already odd resume, Bewley is at the center of a debate about the future of Mendocino County’s legalizing “medical” cannabis industry, particularly when it comes to a debate about prohibiting cultivation on the county’s 914,000 acres of rangeland.

So far, the county’s planning commission and some of its supervisors have drawn a firm line against allowing new rangeland grows.

On January 15th, the Mendocino County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend that the Board of Supervisors adopt the restriction, while continuing to allow existing rangeland growers who can prove they were cultivating prior to January 1, 2016 to obtain permits to grow up to 99 plants per ownership. “When it gets to the Board, I will support a ban on new cultivation in rangeland,” 2nd District Supervisor John McCowen told the AVA. “The proposed ban is a significant mitigation that will protect oak woodlands and other relatively intact habitats from invasive activities.”

In a strange turn, Bewley — a man who was, by all accounts, an outsider to the cannabis industry only a few years ago — has been the county’s most vocal opponent of these protections.

Bewley developed five grow sites on his Adanac Ranch property last year. His future intentions on the property are unclear. But he has spoken adamantly in favor of full-on rangeland cultivation at Planning Commission meetings, and he and his business associates have also plied the planning commissioners with numerous comment letters taking the same position.

William Bewley, the son of the multi-millionaire Stuart, as an example, wrote a letter appealing to the commissioners on the basis of financial hardship [sic] if rangeland cultivation is not permitted. The state’s legalization of recreational marijuana last year had “ushered in an opportunity for land owners and ranchers to diversify their sources of income at a time when making ends meet can be a serious challenge,” he stated.

Proponents of strong environmental protections see these arguments as part of a thinly-veiled push to turn a quick and hefty profit from marijuana cultivation, even at the expense of the county’s oak woodlands. They say that opening up rangelands to cultivation risks subdividing and developing a vast area, with attendant economic and cultural upheaval. Many point to the experience of southern Humboldt County, where the bulldozer armies of the night are scraping the hills to make road cuts and roads, install building pads, impound waterways, and clear-cut hills in three-acre swaths known up there as “dozer-grows” — all to create growing sites on remote mountainous terrain where no previous development has occurred. Meanwhile, many cannabis growers fear that opening up rangeland cultivation will allow large, well-funded competitors like Bewley to drive out and swallow up the area’s smaller growers, a marijuana version of the grape shake-out a few years ago.

Among the most vocal opponents of Bewley’s growing operations, and of his campaign to overturn the rangeland growing ban, is someone who is neither a cannabis grower nor an “environmentalist” in the traditional sense of the term: Laytonville rancher Chris Brennan. He owns a 3,000-acre ranch next door to Bewley’s on Bell Springs Road. “The Adanac Ranch is one of the best wildlife habitats we have in Mendocino County,” Brennan says. “I don’t want to see it broken up, and I don’t want to see it destroyed.”

* * *

In Mendocino County, the history of marijuana cultivation began, ironically, with a social movement that rejected greed as a fundamental principle. Seeking to free themselves from the easy conformity of a life devoted to material gain, the original back-to-the-landers started out by cultivating modest amounts of the non-toxic, mind-altering substance that made them feel happy, whereas others grew no weed at all. In those more innocent early days, getting rich was the furthest thing from most growers’ minds — whatever their other foibles may have been. (Although it certainly helped them make their mortgage payjments.)

The history of Mendocino County’s effort to regulate marijuana cultivation, on the other hand, dates to 2010. The Board of Supervisors enacted the “9.31 permit program,” which provided “a means for medical marijuana cultivators to be clearly in compliance with state and local law while protecting the public peace, health, and safety, including the environment,” a report from the County Department of Agriculture states. This program ran aground in 2012, when the US Department of Justice essentially ordered the County to shut down the 9.31 program or face possible charges of enabling a federal felony: pot cultivation.

A holding pattern remained until the State enacted the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which took effect January 1, 2016, creating a comprehensive state license and regulatory framework for medical marijuana growing. The law gives counties wide latitude to determine their own cannabis regulations. In Mendocino County, a May 2016 “urgency ordinance” allowed people to grow up to 99 plants on a 10-acre parcel with a permit from the Sheriff’s Office. Up to 50 plants can be grown on 5 acres with a permit.

The ordinance was adopted until the County could create a permanent ordinance, a process that is now nearly complete. The Supervisors are set to vote on the permanent ordinance this month, and it will take effect on June 30th, 2017.

At its January 19th meeting, the Planning Commission recommended to the Supervisors a version of the oak woodland protection ordinance suggested by the Willits Environmental Center (WEC), as well as an expanded grading ordinance that would take effect prior to issuing new cultivation permits starting on new year, 2020. The Commission also recommended no new permits in so-called RR2 zoning districts (rural residential, two-acre parcels or smaller). The ordinance would cap the maximum size for an outdoor grow at 10,000 square feet.

WEC’s Ellen Drell says she supports the vast majority of the measures the Planning Commission has recommended. “In a way, these measures are very protective of local growers who are here,” she says. “It doesn’t pit them against a flood of new people coming into the county. It doesn’t swing wide open the doors to new cultivation all over the county. And a lot of growers understand that.”

In a letter to the County Planning Commission, Kate Marianchild, Ukiah-based author of the popular naturalist tract Secrets of the Oak Woodlands, echoed many of Drell’s sentiments. She also expanded on the importance of protecting oak woodlands, which she says are among the most biologically diverse ecosystem types. In her travels, she has determined that “Mendocino County may have the most acreage and the vastest expanses of pristine oak woodlands in all of California,” most of which are on the county’s vast rangeland acreage.

Bewley and his business associates, on the other hand, submitted several comments to the planning commissioners, under a variety of guises. In fact, nearly everyone else who commented in favor of rangeland cannabis cultivation were individuals who works for a business Bewley owns, such as his vineyard west of Laytonville and his forest carbon trading venture, Carbon Storage Solutions, LLC (a business registered with the California Secretary of State under Bewley’s name).

Bewley’s vineyard has recently been the subject of a string of favorable, not to say fawning, newspaper articles. One, authored by former Willits Mayor Holly Madrigal, appeared in the bioregional farming publication Word of MouthMagazine. A March 24, 2016 New York Times article called “California Grapes That Flourish In Splendid Isolation” states that Bewley’s “environmentalism extends to the creatures on the ranch. He grooms the hillsides to make sure that silt and other materials don’t clog the four salmon streams through which coho, king and steelhead swim from the Eel River to spawn.”

The favorable press for Bewley’s vineyard operation has dovetailed with statements he has made to the Mendocino County Planning Commission about the ecologically superior means by which he intends to grow rangeland cannabis. But a review of documents from the State Water Resources Control Board and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reveal that the characterizations of his fish-friendly approach to growing wine-grapes are, at best, half-truths.

From 2001 to 2004, NMFS enforcement officers singled out Bewley’s vineyard — known as Alder Springs Vineyard — for in-depth study regarding the water quality impact of clear-cutting and bulldozing previously forested land to create a cash crop. It was published in 2005, under the title “Monitoring Sediment Delivery to Streams Following Vineyard Development From Forested Lands, and the Effects on Steelhead Trout.”

According to the report, Bewley’s removal of roughly 133 acres of forest to create his vineyard — much of which is located on hillslopes with 6 to 8 degree gradients — resulted in “hillslope failures and surface water runoff [that] delivered substantial volumes of sediment to the streams during the 2002-02 and 2002-03 winter rainy seasons.” The erosion came after Bewley deep ripped the soil on his property — like most big-time grape growers — to a depth of 24 inches, to install the vineyard where the forest had once stood. Roughly 20% of the steelhead living in the impacted streams died in each of those years due to the increased volume of suspended sediment, the report states.

Stacey Li, a co-author of the report, said in an interview that Bewley was, in a sense, not actually the target of the NMFS investigation. Rather, the agency was attempting to send a message to the California Board of Forestry concerning the inadequacy of its rules governing forest conversions. Bewley had received a timber harvest permit from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection; yet, his forest-to-vineyard “conversion” still caused a considerable sediment damage to streams.

Eventually, Bewley did spend nearly a million dollars on erosion control measures on his property. “In terms of whether he set out to be a good environmental steward, it’s sort of hard to tell given the circumstances,” Li says. “He may have been scared the feds were going to nail him, or he may not have. He does have a showcase vineyard. The bad news is that what he’s done was still not enough to keep a significant volume of sediment from washing into the streams and impacting salmonids.”

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board finalized a civil liability complaint against Bewley in 2006. The complaint notes that Water Board staff “observed highly turbid storm water runoff flowing” from Bewley’s property in 2002, resulting from “logging, grubbing, road construction/reconstruction, burning, and extensive grading and land recontouring, often on very steep and unstable slopes without adequate erosion control measures.”

It continues, “Poor grading activities resulted in a landslide, which also discharged the turbid waters into the receiving waters. Regional Water Board staff also observed diesel leaking from the Discharger’s diesel tank truck and heavy equipment and discharging diesel into watercourses at two locations.”

The North Coast Water Board’s executive officer ordered that Bewley create a long-term erosion control plan in June 2002, among other requirements. He initially failed to comply, resulting in a fine of $140,000, according to the Water Board’s complaint.

* * *

Chris Brennan first learned about the proliferation of marijuana cultivation sites on Stuart Bewley’s 14,000-acre Adanac Ranch this past July when he fielded a phone call from then-Third District Supervisor Tom Woodhouse. The erstwhile real estate agent-turned-elected representative informed Brennan of complaints he had received concerning Bewley’s violations of a newly-adopted county “urgency ordinance” which offers permits to cannabis growers, albeit with numerous stipulations. Brennan, a north county resident going back nearly four decades, says he has hunted and cowboyed on Bewley’s land “more times than I can count,” he tells me.

Woodhouse wanted to know what Brennan could tell him concerning multiple reports of new greenhouses, ponds, roads, and building pads on Bewley’s sprawling rangeland, as well as its previous land-use history. Soon after, Brennan took a gander at Bewley’s property from from the vantage point of his horse corral and noticed grows in excess of 100 plants. None had existed the previous year. He further confirmed the grows’ existence, as well as the fact that they were of 2016 vintage, through an examination via Google Earth. He became further concerned upon hearing rumors concerning Bewley’s intentions to expand his Adanac cannabis operation even further. Brennan was worried the land next to him — some of the county’s richest and most intact wildlife habitat — was about to become a Love Drug-induced ecological sacrifice zone. “I’ve seen an incredible amount of wildlife on Adanac: black-tailed dear, Roosevelt elk, bears, Humboldt Martens, and more Pacific fishers than you can count on Adanac,” he says. “There are also three fish-bearing waterways on that property, and salmon and trout spawn at the bottom of all of ’em. … I don’t want to see it broken up, and I don’t want to see it destroyed.”

The county’s urgency ordinance, adopted in June 2016, directs the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office not to issue permits for grows not already in place prior to January 1, 2016. It also forbids the establishment of cannabis patches in excess of 25 plants on multiple parcels under common ownership. Yet, as Brennan soon learned, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Captain Randy Johnson – the administrator of the county’s legal weed program — had issued Bewley and associates permits for brand-new 99-plant grows on five separate parcels within Bewley’s sprawling 102-parcel landholding. Brennan says he phoned Johnson numerous times to complain, but he never heard back. Johnson’s assistant did inform him in an August 12th conversation, he says, that no inspections of Bewley’s property had yet taken place. Brennan next wrote a letter to all five county supervisors and CC’d it to Sheriff Tom Allman and County Counsel Kit Elliott.

Meanwhile, Second District Supervisor John McCowen had received a complaint back in July from another Bewley neighbor about the violations of the Urgency Ordinance, prompting him to approach County Counsel Kit Elliott about having the issue promptly addressed. McCowen was adamant, he says, about preserving the credibility of the Urgency Ordinance, which he worked hard to help craft.

Yet, despite all these protestations, the Sheriff’s Department never rescinded any of the Bewley grow permits. For its part, County Counsel only offered a legal opinion concerning Bewley’s grows after the cultivation season was over.

In an interview, Johnson acknowledged that Adanac Ranch’s grows had “issues.” But he says his department was overwhelmed by the volume of permit applications it received – including 342 on a single day in June – and also hamstrung by a lack of personnel to process the permits and conduct site inspections. Johnson also says the Sheriff’s Office chose to maintain “flexibility” in its application of the urgency ordinance rules, so that growers feel safe to come out of the shadows of illicit cultivation and into the light of a work-in-progress legal cultivation framework. “You don’t take something that’s been illegal, ask the people growing it now to be regulated, and expect that they’re going to be 100 percent compliant,” Johnson says. “I have to use discretion to determine what’s legal, [and also] what’s logical.”

But critics note that Stuart Bewley, far from having operated in the shadows of the cannabis industry previously, was an entirely new grower in 2016. They say that county authorities’ collective failure to act on clear violations of the urgency ordinance, documented in a complaint by a well-known and credible local resident, severely undermine the effort to create a workable ordinance that protects both existing growers and the ecological integrity of the county’s land and water. “Based on this experience,” Supervisor McCowen says, “the County has a long way to go in showing that it is actually capable of enforcing its own ordinances.”

McCowen says the flimsy enforcement of the Urgency Ordinance is an especially sharp concern as the county gears up to adopt a new Medical Cannabis Ordinance, which they will (did) discuss at their February 7th meeting, just after this issue of the AVA goes to press. If adopted, this new legislation would govern the county’s legal cultivation program for the foreseeable future, making it perhaps one of the most significant land-use decisions the Board of Supervisors has ever made.

The Urgency Ordinance allowed cultivators to grow up to 99 plants on a 10-acre parcel with a permit from the Sheriff’s Office. Up to 50 plants can be grown on 5 acres with a permit.

On January 19th, the County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to issue recommendations concerning the new Cannabis Ordinance to the Supervisors, upholding these plant number and parcel size rules and creating several new restrictions on the size and location of grows.

Environmentalists are particularly enthusiastic about the planning commissioners’ recommendation to exclude the county’s 714,000-plus acres of rangelands from new cannabis cultivation, as well as an Oak Woodlands Protection Ordinance and a future Grading Ordinance (both to be adopted by 2020). The draft Oak Woodlands Protection Ordinance requires that not a single oak tree be cut down for new cannabis cultivation. McCowen supports these proposals, though the other supervisors’ positions are currently unknown.

“Part of my bottom-line in our new ordinance is that I want to protect areas like Adanac Ranch that haven’t already been taken over by cannabis cultivation,” McCowen says. “My goal is to bring existing cultivators into a regulated framework before we start carving up the rest of the county.”

The Ukiah-based supervisor takes issue with the argument that county authorities lacked the manpower to deal with the Adanac violations. “It’s disappointing that it took over two months for the county to make a decision on Chris Brennan’s complaint,” he says. “It’s not difficult to review the criteria for what is a legal parcel, what is proof of prior cultivation, what are the AP numbers of the Adanac Ranch, and what are the AP numbers of the applications.”

Johnson says that he opted to seek a legal opinion from County Counsel Kathryn Elliott to determine whether Bewley was actually violating the rules. He says he also met with Bewley and Bewley’s business associates to hear their side of the story before taking action. During the meeting, he says, Bewley brought up an interesting point about one of the Urgency Ordinance’s findings. According to Johnson, Finding “O” leaves the “multiple grows on multiple parcels” issues open to interpretation.

It states: “With the elimination of the exemption from the 25 plant per parcel limit, the County also revised the definition of legal parcel from defining an unlimited number of contiguous parcels under common ownership or control as one parcel eligible for a single exemption, to defining any portion of a parcel with a separate Assessor’s Parcel number as a parcel, resulting in an individual owner of multiple contiguous parcels being able to cultivate 25 marijuana plants times the number of Assessor’s Parcel numbers, instead of being limited to no more than 99 plants with an exemption.”

Ultimately, Johnson says, County Counsel Elliott determined that Bewley’s multiple grow sites did, in fact, violate the Urgency Ordinance. By that point, however, the cultivation season was over; Bewley’s associates presumably had already harvested all the plants.

In an interview, Elliott echoed Johnson’s point about the lack of clear language in the Urgency Ordinance. “For the people enforcing these things, the language is not always easy to understand,” she says.

Chris Brennan has positive things to say about Elliott, whom he describes as “very helpful.” She convened a meeting with him and Undersheriff Johnson on October 5th, he says, in which Brennan and Elliott provided Google Earth maps of Bewley’s property. Elliott confirmed several details of the meeting, and she says she arranged it so that “Randy Johnson could hear Chris Brennan’s concerns.”

But Brennan, like McCowen, questions why it took Elliott until after the cultivation season to determine that Bewley’s cannabis grows violated the Urgency Ordinance, even though the complaints about them started pouring in in July. He especially wonders why Johnson, in particular, waited to act on his complaint. “I keep asking these people, ‘Why did Johnson take so long? Why did he protect the Adanac?’” he says. “It’s pretty sad when a citizen makes a complaint about something as important as this and gets stone-cold silence from the official responsible.”

In December, Brennan obtained copies of the five permit applications that Bewley and associates filed with the Sherriff’s Office. Oddly, he notes, some of the paperwork is dated in September, even though the application deadline for the cultivation permits was in June. He also notes that some of the names on the applications were amended in some of these post-deadline filings.

The businesses listed on the applications include medical cannabis businesses in Napa and Marin counties.

Elliott declined to provide the AVA a copy of the official legal opinion concerning the Adanac Ranch grows. She also declined to answer several questions about the contents of the opinion, citing her obligation to protect confidential information. “We have to be very cautious because we are legal advisers,” she says. “We’re behind the scenes; we’re not out in front.”

I asked Johnson whether Bewley would be allowed to continue cultivating in the same areas next year, provided that the county adopts rules identical to those in the Urgency Ordinance. “If everything stayed the way it is now, No,” he says. “Say this program they’re in now went forward. No, they would not be able to grow in the same locations based on the parcel issue.”

Johnson also took issue with Brennan’s personal style of raising complaints, questioned why he singled out Adanac Ranch for criticism, and acknowledged that violations of the Urgency Ordinance were not limited to Adanac. “Chris Brennan deals with stuff a little bit abrasively. He was focused on the Adanac Ranch. But there were people in other places who had the same issues as the people at Adanac Ranch had.” He also claimed that Brennan has “an ax to grind” with marijuana cultivation.

But Brennan says his main concern, in addition to protecting wildlife, is the integrity of the county’s cannabis ordinance. His concerns are similar to those expressed by McCowen. “I know people who went through the process of getting a permit to grow 99 plants who are good people,” Brennan says. “They jumped through all the hoops. They paid the money. They hired the consultants, did the studies. They did all this, but then Stuart Bewley and his people get to do whatever they want?”

One Comment

There has always been a lot of money sloshing around in the pot business. And Mammon is our reigning deity. As the entire enterprise stumbles and stutters towards legalization, the overwhelming question is how to keep the price high and grab as much of the pie as possible. The growers, sellers, and now government, all want a big cut. All over one of the most prolific of plant species, which would actually be worth much less without all the legal encumbrances. It’s shaping up into another turf war.

I can almost see the ads now – “And with each ounce you buy, we pledge to underwrite another robot bee.”