In a dramatic break from its fellow municipalities in Kern County, California City has embraced the medical marijuana industry in hopes of cashing in on the lucrative market.
"Why not us?" said California City City Manager Tom Weil. "Why can't we look at new industry coming into our community?"
He's got a point there. Weil said no one is breaking down doors at City Hall to get a permit to open up a business in this town of 14,000 or so residents about 90 minutes east of Bakersfield. Nearly one out four civilians is unemployed, according to stats from the Kern Council of Governments, a transportation planning agency.
Here's what the city is doing: it recently approved an ordinance that permits the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, transportation and testing of medical cannabis for large-scale commercial marijuana farming. It allows one dispensary for every 13,000 residents. All growing is to be done indoors in facilities as large as 22,000 square feet, which are relegated to an industrial zone near the city's airport far away from residential areas.
Weil has crunched the numbers and he anticipates that for starters, the city will rake in $2 million to $3 million a year in tax benefits. California City joins a host of others around the state scrambling to do the same thanks to state rules passed last year that allow local governments to regulate the multi-billion dollar medicinal cannabis industry.
California City leaders did their homework before adopting this new venture. The city council discussed it for months and included public hearings. Mayor Jennifer Wood conducted an online survey and the response was overwhelmingly in favor.
Nearly 75 percent of 195 respondents thought it was the right move to make, and a majority of those respondents were 55- to 64-years-old. Least you get the idea the mayor is some hippie left over from the '60's, she and her husband are retired from the military.
The response blew her away.
"This is a fairly conservative community and I thought the (results) would be flipped the other way," said Wood.
Police Chief Eric Hurtado admits he had public safety concerns. But after the city added a host of security measures businesses must have, he came on board. Those measures include businesses having a third-party security service, police will have 24-hour access to any facility, and police will be able to monitor all security camera footage at the police station. The new rules take effect in 2018 but no one is waiting to take action until then.
The move has set off a marijuana land rush, sending California City Realtors into a tizzy they haven't seen in years. Severely depressed property values are suddenly coming to life. Speculators and marijuana growers wanting to get a piece of the action are outbidding one another to buy property zoned for marijuana use.
"With every week that goes by, prices double," said Jane Riding of IMC Real Estate. "Everything we had listed two weeks ago is now sold."
Working on her computer, Riding points out a 1.1-acre plot going for $99,500. Another isn't even a full acre, yet it lists for $100,000 and the price isn't going any lower. One property owner tired of paying taxes sold his undeveloped 5 acres for $125,000.
Doesn't matter there are no utility hook-ups out there, just a bunch of Joshua trees, tumbleweeds and coyotes.
"It's exciting to get the phone calls," said Mike Strong, president of Strong Realty. He added he's been dealing mostly with people in the marijuana industry looking for land.
But public officials outside California City are reacting with reservation and give a cool reception to this bold move. And I don't mean cool as in hip.
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he had no comment and any public safety issues would need to be dealt with by California City police. Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner was likewise reserved but did question California City making money by luring in marijuana growers.
"What kind of businesses do you want in your community?" Goldner asked.
Numerous calls placed to 2nd District Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner for comment were never returned. California City is in his district, so why is he keeping quiet?
Applications to start your medical marijuana growing operation are available at California City City Hall, and they're going fast. You can have one emailed to you and applications must be returned by close of business Dec. 19. But be ready for a voluminous amount of paperwork. Mayor Wood is confident her city has taken all steps necessary to make this controversial project a success.
"If we continue to do the things the way we're doing it now, we are going to have a role model for other cities to follow," she said.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.