SANTA CRUZ >> With a looming vote on a marijuana tax, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors made the case Tuesday that pot grows are causing widespread devastation in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Describing enforcement as overwhelming and showing images of forests scarred by illegal clearing and grading, county staff documented their efforts to get a handle on a growing problem. Top fire officials and neighbors also testified, saying the fire danger and nuisances threatens their homes and livelihoods.

“We support medical marijuana, but this cultivation thing is way out of hand,” Summit-area resident Ken Moore said, describing everything from close-call fires to the drone of cheap generators. “Something has to be done about this stuff. You can’t live with this stuff.”

County staff have identified at least 84 marijuana cultivation operations, primarily in the mountains, and there are likely many more. Seventeen sites have active enforcement actions, with problems including illegal grading, illegal dams and other stream diversions, growers camping on site and more.

“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we’re touching right now,” said Robin Bolster-Grant, a county planner.

A county civil engineer even singled out a 3-acre clearing in the hills above Corralitos, saying the unlawful site could trigger a slide onto Eureka Canyon Road during the rainy season.


Aptos resident Becky Steinbruner said she was leading a group of 4-H students on a nature hike near the Summit when they stumbled upon not one, but two, marijuana grows. The property owner did not know about them, she said.

“We really have to do something here. It’s more than just growing medicine. It’s a huge fire and safety risk for our county at large,” Steinbruner said.

Even NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is expressing grave concern about the scale of pot grows in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In a letter Monday to the county board, federal regulators said stream diversions and unauthorized land uses could further threaten habitat for endangered steelhead and coho salmon.

The fire danger posed by illegal grows was underscored by Cal Fire Division Chief Rich Sampson.

“Don’t get me wrong, we have encountered some growers who know what they’re doing,” Sampson said. “Unfortunately, we’re in a period that’s been similar to the California Gold Rush, where we have a lot of people coming out that aren’t trained, they really have no conception of ordinances or permits (or) how to safely operate in the woods.”

On Nov. 4, voters in the unincorporated areas and the city of Santa Cruz will vote on whether to allow a tax of up to 10 percent on dispensary receipts, with an initial level set at 7 percent. Though the money could be used for any purpose, there are strong signals the county plans to use some to go after illegal grows.

Dispensary operators initially opposed the tax as too steep, but now support Measure K. At the board’s meeting Tuesday, they expressed disdain for the operations outlined by county staff, saying no responsible operator would cultivate marijuana with such cavalier disregard for the environment.

Supervisors appeared incensed at the report and the environmental damage it outlined.

“All these things that we’ve heard about are unacceptable,” Supervisor Neal Coonerty said. “They don’t speak to the values that Santa Cruz has held for a long, long time.”

Last year, the county joined a handful of California counties in granting dispensaries immunity from prosecution if they comply with certain conditions. It also passed a companion cultivation ordinance meant to address widespread problem and complaints with pot operation both in the mountains and in the urban core.

In related business, the county board on Tuesday struck all references to marijuana in those laws, replacing them with “cannabis.” However, it tabled a proposal to increase the minimum age for medical marijuana customers to 21 years old.