With California’s cannabis real estate market red hot right now, many cannabis businesses are looking at buying rural farms with family farmhouses as sites for their marijuana business. This though can be a risky approach. Businesses hoping to become legitimate licensed operators under California’s Medicinal and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA) should consider the following before signing on the dotted line on this sort of real estate deal:
- Government approval contingencies. One of the most important differences between a residential and a commercial Purchase and Sale Agreement is that well-crafted commercial agreements (especially in the cannabis industry) usually contain business-specific contingencies, including a contingency for local and state government approval that the buyer will be able to confirm that it can legally use the property for its intended use. Residential real estate Purchase and Sale Agreements (even those with an agricultural addendum) rarely include these specific contingencies, leaving the buyer to investigate and bear the risk. Because local law is king under MAUCRSA, you need a contingency in your real estate Purchase and Sale Agreement that will allow you to stop the deal if your local government is not going to let you conduct cannabis business on the property.
- Zoning. If a seller is using a residential Purchase and Sale Agreement because a house is included with the land purchase, chances are good that the property being bought is zoned residential. This sort of zoning increases the likelihood commercial uses will be disallowed altogether or restricted by local ordinance — many of which will roll out in the months and years to come as MAUCRSA licensing tees up. Even rural properties that look suitable for farming must be closely scrutinized for land use restrictions of all kinds, including zoning. A buyer cannot simply rely on the appearance of the property or on general knowledge about a past use.
- Nuisance. California’s Right-to-Farm laws generally work against neighbors seeking to bring nuisance claims against farming uses abutting a residential development. But those laws do not (at least as of yet) make cannabis an explicit agricultural product that landowners have a right to farm. Add that to probably the most common complaint about cannabis — odor — and you can see why that family farm could end up creating a NIMBY problem that would not be there with your typical cornfield. See California Cannabis NIMBYs and Land Use Disputes.
- Civil asset forfeiture. Even state-legal cannabis businesses are at risk of federal civil asset forfeiture actions and that sort of action could be even harsher for cannabis operators living in a house on their cannabis farm — the federal government could take their house as well as their land.
- Conservation Easements. California’s Williamson Act allows localities to enter contracts with landowners that restrict the use of their property to only agricultural purposes and not build any improvements on the land in return for local tax breaks. Some California localities (even those with medical cannabis licensing ordinances) will often decline to waive prohibitions on federal illegality in agricultural conservation easements to allow cannabis operations on those parcels, because federal funding is directly tied to these conservation programs, and it is much easier for the federal government to turn off a locality’s funding spigot than to pursue a civil asset forfeiture against individuals and their land. This means you should carefully examine all land use restrictions on any parcel you are considering buying.
- Water rights. California’s water rights laws are complex and contentious (see, e.g., Chinatown). A California landowner’s right to use a nearby water source can flow from a number of different legal sources, such as riparian rights (land is adjacent to water source), appropriative rights (first in time, first in right), prescriptive rights (akin to adverse possession), overlaying groundwater rights, adjudicated rights, contractual rights, statutory rights, etc., etc., etc. What’s more, these various rights frequently compete with each other in priority for finite water sources, particularly during droughts. A potential buyer of a residential farm will need to look closely not only at the existing water rights associated with the property, but also at the potential for those rights to be augmented, especially if the intended use is cannabis cultivation, which is water-intensive. Commercial properties, especially those with past manufacturing or large scale agricultural uses, usually have greater established water rights than a small family farm. Furthermore, though the California Department of Food and Agriculture has not yet issued its final cannabis cultivation rules (those will come in November), MAUCRSA will require government approval of any water diversion for cultivation purposes (and water board approval by certain fast-approaching dates for some water sources), which is something that can be included in a government approval contingency but that would not typically be included in a residential Purchase and Sale Agreement, so amend accordingly.
The above list highlights just some of the key land use issues you should consider before you do any residential land deal involving cannabis.