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Sonoma County advances cleanup of illegal pot operation on public open space

A large illegal marijuana farm trashed part of a remote section of land owned by Sonoma County’s open space district, requiring what is expected to be a costly cleanup and highlighting once more the scourge of renegade pot operations on public land.

The now-abandoned plot, which county officials estimated had more than 1,000 pot plants, was discovered by an ecologist about four months ago on the former Cresta Ranch, which takes in steep, forested land northeast of Santa Rosa. The public property is among some 1,000 acres of land designated to one day become the Mark West Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve.

Sonoma County supervisors voted Tuesday to pursue $50,000 in grant money from CalRecycle, the state solid waste agency, to help repair the site. The Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District would tap its sales tax revenue for a similar amount to help cover the estimated cleanup cost.

The decision Tuesday, which included the first public report on the pot farm’s discovery, comes as local voters are already casting mail-in ballots for Measure A, a proposed cannabis business tax that is the only countywide issue in the March 7 special election. Measure A funds are intended to help cover the cost of implementing the county’s new medical marijuana regulations and would assist with cleanup of illegal sites like the one found at Cresta Ranch, officials said.

Marijuana is often illegally grown on public and private lands in California, including in Sonoma County. Illegal growing operations have been found on county land before, but they’re rare, and few have matched the size of the Cresta Ranch operation, said Bill Keene, the open space district’s general manager.

“It was really bad. It was very hidden,” Keene said of illegal plot. “We just kind of stumbled onto it.”

The county generally relies on observations from staff members, trained volunteers and members of the public to identify potential grow sites, as well as aerial surveillance from the Sheriff’s Office and California Highway Patrol helicopters, officials said.

The Cresta Ranch property’s eventual transition to parkland should result in more constant supervision from public visitors, helping prevent the land from being used for future illegal grows, according to Bert Whitaker, park manager for the Regional Parks department.

“We’ve found that large, open space properties with public access tend to have fewer issues with illegal grows. This is mostly attributed to the additional eyes and ears of public visitation,” Whitaker told supervisors at their regular meeting Tuesday. “And we live in a world of constant communication, where park visitors regularly contact Regional Parks to report anything … they see as suspicious, in real time, while they’re using the park.”

An ecologist who consults for the open space district was conducting a routine inspection of the Cresta Ranch property in October when he saw marijuana plants being dried, according to Sheri Emerson, the district’s stewardship program manager. The ecologist promptly left and the open space district notified the Sheriff’s Office, Emerson said.

Officials with the open space district and the Regional Parks department returned to the site in December, at which point it had been abandoned. The delay was in keeping with protocol that staff not enter an active grow site, Emerson said. The site featured an extensive operation that appeared to support the cultivation of more than 1,000 plants, in addition to three water basins, campsites and large amounts of trash, Emerson said. No arrests have been made in the case, according to a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

To clean the site, crews will have to remove an estimated 4,500 pounds of waste, including car batteries, irrigation tubing, various plant material, garbage and other items, officials said. Keene estimated the trash could fill four large dumpsters.

Cleanup crews will also need to regrade and replant areas where the marijuana growers cleared vegetation to create terraces for the plants and space for the water basins, one of which appears to be about 9 feet deep, according to Emerson.

Officials believe the growers used water from a nearby property without the landowner’s knowledge.

Of particular concern to county officials is the site’s proximity to an unnamed tributary to Mark West Creek, home to runs of endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout.

But before any cleanup work can be done, open space officials still need to thoroughly assess the presence of hazardous materials on the site, Emerson said.

“We want to make sure we don’t move anything until we know the results of what’s actually out there,” she said. “We don’t want to be moving soil if there’s a highly dangerous pesticide. We just want to make sure we don’t make the problem worse.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@thejdmorris.

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