The California Homeowners Facing Million-Dollar Fines for Growing Vegetables
Government fines and fees are supposed to be about protecting the public by discouraging harmful conduct, whether it be unsafe driving or maintaining an unsafe property. But across the country, local governments have instead begun using their power to enforce traffic, property, and other ordinances to raise revenue, trampling citizens’ rights in the process.
At IJ we call it “taxation by citation,” and we are the nation’s leading litigators challenging these abusive fines and fees.
Our latest example comes from Humboldt County, California.
It all began when Californians legalized marijuana in 2017, and Humboldt officials saw green. They passed new ordinances to maximize the county’s taxes and fees from commercial cultivation. Fearful of losing revenue, they also weaponized the building code to punish anyone who might possibly be growing without a permit. Fines for minor violations that would ordinarily be a couple hundred dollars now jump to $10,000 if the county thinks the violation has some nexus to marijuana.
And as the fines have gone up, the county’s standards for issuing them have gone down. To identify potential violators, county officials now use satellite images to find properties with an unpermitted greenhouse or a graded flat of land. Then, without any further investigation, the county issues an average of three violations. A single unpermitted greenhouse, for example, can bring $30,000 in daily fines: $10,000 for the greenhouse; $10,000 because the county insists the owner must have moved 50 cubic feet of soil; and $10,000 for unpermitted cultivation by alleging—again, without any investigation—that the greenhouse must have marijuana inside.
Pictures confirming there’s no marijuana will not get the county to drop the charges. Instead, the owner has just 10 days to return the land to its “pre-cannabis state,” a murky concept that can include demolishing buildings and graded mountain roads. Those who dare contest the charges risk having their daily fines accumulate for 90 days.
This code enforcement dragnet catches plenty of harmless and innocent conduct. Humboldt has issued cannabis fines for a monastery’s garden, lavender and vegetable farms, and plenty of homesteaders who grow their own food. Blu Graham, for instance, faced $900,000 in fines for a greenhouse because code enforcement said they knew he wasn’t “just growing asparagus.” They were right: Blu was also growing peppers to make salsa for his wife’s Venezuelan restaurant.
The county even fines new owners for their predecessors’ behavior. Rhonda Olson and Doug and Corrine Thomas all face millions in fines because previous owners once grew marijuana on their properties. The county demanded they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove unpermitted structures and grading—not because of any safety concern, but simply because cannabis once touched it.
Meanwhile, anyone who appeals waits years for a hearing—the most basic component of due process—under the threat of life-ruining fines. It’s a kangaroo court system designed to coerce property owners into settling their cases and surrendering their rights. That’s not just unfair; it’s unconstitutional.
But now—represented by IJ—Blu, Rhonda, and the Thomases have filed a class action to stop Humboldt County’s abusive code enforcement. No one should be strong-armed into giving up their property rights without these vital safeguards, and no one should have to risk losing their home simply for building a greenhouse.
Jared McClain is an IJ attorney.
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