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Cannabis site stalled in Paso Robles amid neighbor concerns; developers say it brings many benefits

Marcus Cocova
McCommon and Connella's development drafting papers lie among other planning and appeal materials.

Many in the Paso Robles area live a life of farming and agriculture, like resident Jo Capaldi.

“I just live here — [and] take care of the horses and what have you,” Capaldi said.

Credit Marcus Cocova
Jo Capaldi, a neighbor of the proposed project, expresses her concerns surrounding the cultivation center.

Among the rolling hills spotted with horses and covered by grapevines, some neighbors are saying trouble is sprouting on Penman Springs Road. Chandler Soojian, a horseback riding instructor, describes the situation.

“The adjacent property to us, they’re wanting to start a big cannabis operation. You know, they have their reasons on why they’d like that to happen. Pretty much, everyone else in the neighborhood and surrounding area is pretty against it,” Soojian said.

Soojian says she has her reasons for being opposed to the proposed project.

“Here, like I said, I run lessons and teach little kids how to ride. I teach probably 20 children, three or more days a week, how to ride. It’s not very convincing to tell their parents, you know, or not even tell their parents, but for their parents to see [just] what’s going on,” Soojian said.

Credit Marcus Cocova
Chandler Soojian, a horseback riding instructor who works next to the proposed cultivation center, shares why she is against the project.

For the landowners who are working to build the cultivation site, it’s a different story.

Brooke McCommon, her husband Pete, and Austen Connella are business partners on the project. Connella is the CEO of SLO Cal Roots and McCommon is the CEO of The Bloomfield Company.

“It's really disheartening when the neighbors say just simply ‘we want you to pack up and leave.’ You know, this, this is a very thought out project that's taken years to get here, and you know, mine and Pete's whole relationship of 13 years has been to work towards our dream of being right here with Austen,” McCommon said.

Credit Marcus Cocova
Brooke McCommon and Austen Connella, the property owners and business partners, say their farm will bring benefits to the local community.

McCommon says she and her partners have had to make significant sacrifices to pursue their business in the cannabis industry.

“We don't have access to traditional banking, and that comes, you know, with hindrances as far as the business goes, but also in our personal lives with qualifying for federally backed loans like Freddie Mac, Fannie Mac. Really, every single aspect of our lives being a cannabis business owner is an uphill battle,” McCommon said.

Since cannabis is still illegal federally, McCommon says securing financial aids like federal loans is not an option.

Both McCommon and Connella say the processing of cannabis would happen at a different location and this site on Penman Springs Road would be exclusively for growth.

Other neighbors, like Christina Maldonado, say there are plenty of reasons why this project should not be approved; the first in line being her concerns surrounding water.

Maldonado says she does all she can to keep her wells from running dry.

“Why is it fair that we have to do all that and yet you let projects like this come in, and oh, it's no problem. They're gonna use 24 million gallons of water, and I'm paying $1,000 a month for hay. Are you kidding me? That's just not fair. It is not fair,” Maldonado said.

Connella says he and McCommon have already addressed their neighbors' concerns in their planning, like those surrounding water usage.

“For this particular project, you know, we're conditioned to actually offset our water use [in the, in the] in the basin, two to one. So, for every gallon of water that we use, we're actually going to have to offset or save two gallons of water use in the Paso Robles groundwater basin,” said Connella.

Maldonado is campaigning in opposition of the project by attending board of supervisor meetings to voice her concerns and creating materials like Nocannabisinourbackyard.org.

Other neighbors, like Teri Capaldi, say she moved to Paso Robles to escape the sights of city living.

“It's a dream come true being able to live in a country and no longer a concrete jungle like LA and the people and the rudeness and everything else. It took a while to slow down but now it's [it's] heaven,” Capaldi said.

She says she fears this project will deconstruct the sights of the California countryside.

“Saturday, we rode just around the vineyard, and there's deer running through, there are places there's coyote, there's the kit foxes, I guess, over there, all over. You don't have that anywhere anymore. You really don't. This whole world is going to become concrete jungles and let's just hang on to this for a little bit longer,” Capaldi said.

Credit Marcus Cocova
Teri Capaldi discusses her desire to preserve the natural sights of the Paso Robles area.

Austen Connella shares that he has been in the Central Coast for most of his life, and he says he would like to see his community reap the benefits of his business venture — including tourism, jobs, and tax revenue.

“That passion is really what's driven [driven] me. It’s driven me here locally, you know, it's my goal to give back to the community, which you know, I live in. [And] I think cannabis is a powerful tool for that. I think it can not only heal people, but heal communities,” Connella said.

He says that for him cannabis is much more than a way to make money.

“In the last five years, you know, I lost [my] both my dad and my uncle both to cancer, [and] you know, through his final years, I got to watch cannabis really relieve a lot of pain and suffering and you know, in my opinion, help them live longer,” Connella said.

Credit Marcus Cocova
Austen Connella hopes to see he and McCommon's business interests go forward in Paso Robles.

However, Maldonado says this project makes her feel uneasy.

“My heart's beating. [And] I literally want to break down and cry because I'm so scared of this. I'm so worried,” Maldonado said.

She says of all her concerns, those of water, odor, safety, even environmental impact she fears her son being exposed to the potential impacts of a cultivation center above all else.

“It saddens me that for maybe eight months out of the year, in order for him to be outside, he's going to have to be exposed to those odors. I don't want that. I'm sorry. See, I can't talk about it without getting emotional at some point, because it is huge. It is a big thing. I'm sorry,” said Maldonado.

McCommon and Connella say they take the concerns of the community seriously and that they feel responsible for better educating those who may not understand the cannabis industry.

“We've invited all the neighbors over repetitively asking them, you know, just come, come learn. Let us show you. I think that once you see the plant and actually see, ‘oh, wow, this really is just a plant.’ It's a lot less scary then,” said McCommon.

Credit Marcus Cocova
Brooke McCommon overlooks her and Connella's property.

As for other impacts, Connella says this farm would be no different from any other.

“There'll be no outside signage indicating what's going on. There'll be no on-site consumption, no on-site sales, no on-site distribution, and so, you know, in all, all effects from the outside, it'll appear just like any other farm, you know. The fact that we're growing cannabis here, why the neighbors may know it, it's not going to be advertised, it's not going to be known,” said Connella.

McCommon says that despite the current disagreement with her neighbors, she looks forward to setting their differences aside.

“At the end of the day, though, I mean, it really comes back to Christina and I are going to be neighbors for a long time, and I hope that we look back on this and a couple of years and just kind of, you know, look at where we are now and just have a good relationship, because I feel like we have a lot more in common than she thinks we do,” said McCommon.

Credit Marcus Cocova
Brooke McCommon and Austen Connella provide a tour of the current landscape of the Penman Springs Road property.

The Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a continuation request on Tuesday, July 13.

The request was filed by the cannabis cultivators, which they say was in consideration of their neighbors.

The future date for discussion for the Board of Supervisors is yet to be determined.

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