Local farmer pushes for marijuana to sustain business

Encinitas farmer Bob Echter is fighting to grow marijuana to help keep his business alive, which has sparked conversations within the city.

The second generation agriculturalist, who owns Dramm and Echter in the Encinitas Ranch area, wants to grow cannabis on a portion of his land to help offset rising labor costs.

He explained on a recent private tour of his property that he has 80 employees who work close to minimum wage. With wage inflation increases over the next few years, he has had to think of solutions to keep his business sustainable.

About two years ago, he began looking into marijuana as a potential answer.

"I don't think it's do or die, but it's upside down," he said. "We're looking for avenues to help finance. It's a legal crop. It's not like we're doing a weird thing. It might be new and different, but it's not illegal."

He said he surveyed his neighbors last year, asking what they thought if he pursued growing marijuana. Most of the people he spoke to were either neutral or supportive, he said.

Other proponents have argued delivery services could be beneficial to medical patients, that marijuana has been in Encinitas for years — whether or not opponents “realized it” — and cultivation could provide tax money for other city projects, like train track trenching.

Encinitas residents also largely approved marijuana with the passing of Prop. 64, which legalized the recreational use of cannabis in California in November 2016, proponents argued at the meeting. About 65 percent of people voted in favor of the initiative.

But in recent months, residents have flooded city council chambers objecting to Echter's proposal to grow marijuana on a 40,000-square-foot portion of his 800,000-square-foot property.

Naysayers have shared concerns about smells, crime, threats to the environment, safety for the community — especially youth — and depreciating property values.

At an Adult Use of Marijuana Act subcommittee meeting held Sept. 28 with Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz and Council member Joe Mosca, residents from the nearby Foxglove neighborhood shared concerns about how Echter's operations could affect their neighborhood.

Jane Hendrix, a 23-year resident of the Foxglove neighborhood near Echter's property, said she believes in the legalization of marijuana, but it should not be allowed in a residential neighborhood.

"When I moved into that neighborhood, it was a flower field and dirt road into Leucadia," she said. "I have seen it all go through changes, and now it is a residential area. The general plan needs to be changed. It's among houses. It's not in a farm area anymore."

Signs have also popped up across from Echter's property, warning that the neighborhood would "stink" if cannabis was allowed.

At the subcommittee meeting Sept. 28, the task force was split, with Mosca wanting the substance to be banned outright and Kranz showing support for local farmers who wanted to pursue growing marijuana. The decision will be left to the city council, which will discuss the matter at its regular meeting Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. at city hall.

The city was challenged last month when the San Diego-based Association of Cannabis Professionals (ACP) informed the city of its intent to circulate a petition that, if it received enough signatures, would place a ballot measure for a local election to have residents decide if cultivation and storefronts should be allowed in Encinitas.

The ACP will have to obtain about 6,000 signatures from Encinitas voters to quality for an initiative on a special election ballot or about 4,000 signatures for a general election initiative, Mosca explained in a recent interview prior to the meeting.

Sapphire Blackwood, who works with the ACP, said the group would rescind its ballot measure should the city decide to pass marijuana regulations, including solely allowing cultivation in the city.

Echter said, if he is allowed to grow marijuana, threats to the environment won't be an issue since the property will continue recycling water and will likely not use any more water than they are currently using. He also said the water is sterilized, which kills fungi and bacteria.

All of his growing areas also use energy-saving curtains and beneficial insects for insect control.

Odors would be beaten with ozone technology to align with a possible city ordinance that would permit cannabis.

He also said the marijuana-growing area, which will be enclosed and double-gated, will be watched at all times. While the business is closed, security guards will patrol the area. There will also be motion detector lights, he said, and no cash would be held on the property.

He added he believes the growing area is far enough from the entrance that intruders would have a hard time getting in, cutting the plants and hauling them back outside without being caught.

"If anybody tries to get in, we'll catch them pretty fast," he said.

He vowed to be a good neighbor should he be allowed to grow marijuana.

"It's not going to be a prison yard with towers," he said. "In my mind, if we do our job right, the neighbors really won't even know that this exists."

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