Scott Willard is a self-professed “lab nerd,” a scientist who went into the business of opening medical testing labs across the country. Living in Corral de Tierra, he met a lot of farmers lamenting the same thing: There aren’t enough agricultural testing labs in Monterey County, especially when it comes to cannabis. Willard and his partners at Coverton Labs looked into what it would take to open an ag testing lab locally and determined there is a “massive need,” and with it, a good business opportunity.
About six months ago they found a building in Ryan Ranch, a Monterey office park that’s already home to a number of medical testing labs. “It’s a perfect fit for us,” Willard says.
Coverton’s plan was to bring in state-of-the-art equipment that would allow them to offer a faster turnaround than smaller agricultural labs – potentially helpful in identifying sources of problems like the recent E. coli outbreaks in lettuce, for example. The lab would also test cannabis, as required of growers by the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, for things like pesticides and potency levels. In many cases, growers of agricultural products have to send samples to out-of-state labs which further delays receiving test results. Willard expects the lab to employ 30-40 staff members at full capacity.
Willard pursued a use permit with the city of Monterey – state rules require proof of city approvals for cannabis operations – and says he was initially told the lab should fit within current zoning for Ryan Ranch. He was surprised on Nov. 8 when he received a letter from Monterey Community Development Director Kimberly Cole declaring that the lab was a “public nuisance” under the city’s current marijuana ordinance, which was enacted in 2011, and no permit would be issued.
Willard appealed to the Monterey Planning Commission, and on Dec. 10, he and his consultant Joe Headley outlined for commissioners that the lab would not be involved in the sale or distribution of cannabis. The commission voted 6-1 to grant the appeal, but nine days later city officials informed Willard they were going to take the proposal to City Council.
“No person shall grow, sell, exchange or distribute marijuana within the city in any zone, or engage in any operation for this purpose,” Monterey city code currently reads. Planning staff emphasized or engage in any operation for this purpose in their explanation. The letter also cites a violent incident in October 2018 – in which masked gunmen burst into an illegal cannabis operation in Ryan Ranch, terrorizing a young family inside and stealing cash, plants and edibles – as a reason for why the lab should be denied.
“They feel like we’re part of the process to sell [cannabis] and we’re not,” Willard says. “The bottom line is, our job isn’t to tell anybody to use it, it’s to make it safe for those who choose to.”
City Manager Hans Uslar says the commission made a mistake approving Willard’s use permit. The matter is tentatively scheduled to be heard by City Council on Jan. 21. It will be up to councilmembers at that point if they want to update the city’s ordinance, Uslar says.
Willard says his company may begin looking for available space in Del Rey Oaks or Seaside; for now, the spot they want in Ryan Ranch is still vacant. “I can’t deal with more delays,” he says.