You’ve seen fire sales. They happen when goods or real estate are discounted sharply after fire damages a store or a building. But the term has new meaning in rural Calaveras County, where the devastating Butte Fire swept through thousands of acres last year, the seventh-worst wildfire in recorded California history.
It’s just possible that what’s happening near towns like Mountain Ranch, Murphys and San Andreas could foretell at least one aspect of life in fertile parts of California if Proposition 64 passes this fall and legalizes recreational use of marijuana.
Here’s one example of what’s going on, as told via email by a Calaveras County property owner (not personally involved in this story): “An 80-year-old widower whose property burned near Mountain Ranch decided to sell and move to town (San Andreas – population 2,783). He listed his scorched 37 acres at about $350,000 with a broker in town. Next day, he gets a call to come in; there’s an offer on the table. He goes to the broker and receives $500,000 in stacks of bills.”
It’s a fire sale in reverse, in part because marijuana entrepreneurs figure pot will be completely legal in California after the fall vote and in part because growers find burned-over properties far easier to farm than wooded ones that need clearing.
This transaction was fairly typical for the last year in a boom real estate market spurred by burned-off land, the presumption Proposition 64 will pass easily and the fact that surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountain foothill counties have tighter restrictions on growing the weed.
One real estate broker in the hamlet of Valley Springs reported selling 36 vacant properties in the month of March. Another in San Andreas reportedly sold 16 parcels in three weeks.
But there’s more than a real estate boom under way in the county. Residents report that longstanding deed restrictions against driving heavy trucks on privately-maintained dirt roads leading to remote properties are routinely ignored as start-up growers haul in heavy loads of fertilizer and machinery.
There’s also the possibility of violence in what is shaping up as a Wild West atmosphere. The same property owner who reported the quick 37-acre cash sale at more than 40 percent above the asking price also gave this report: “A resident near our land walked across his property to the fence that divided his place from the grower’s next door. Two men with rifles came toward him and warned him to stay away from the fence. He’s decided to sell and leave the area.”
County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio did not deny that this episode and others like it have occurred.
A non-grower who lived through the land boom in Mendocino County in the state’s so-called “Emerald Triangle” after medical marijuana was legalized in California via the 1996 Proposition 215 said the scene there was similar until county regulations took hold and settled things down.
Hoping to accomplish the same, Calaveras County supervisors in May adopted local rules allowing pot grows of up to a quarter-acre on properties of at least two acres and grows of a half-acre on properties of four acres or more. These plots would be larger than any permitted in California outside Humboldt County, another Emerald Triangle area where legal cannabis fields can reach a full acre.
None of this includes illicit pot farms, long common in rural California, often operated by drug cartels. These frequently poach state or federal lands and water.
“We definitely have some cartel growers here,” said Sheriff DiBasilio. “But we eradicate those grows whenever we find them. It’s hard to know who’s behind them, though, because once they hear our helicopters, the workers disappear very quickly.” When such workers have been caught, they’ve often been undocumented immigrants, many from South and Central America.
“California has been a bit wild compared to other states that have legal marijuana,” said Steve Gormley, founder of Seventh Point LLC, a private equity fund that invests in marijuana growing. “Law enforcement officials need to have a clear understanding of regulations and enforce them in a careful manner.”
No one knows for sure whether the atmosphere reported in Calaveras County will be duplicated elsewhere if pot is legalized. But the scene’s similarity to previous pot booms indicates that’s a good bet, and no one can be sure exactly where this might occur.