Former Cougar Landing illegal pot farm now ‘the missing piece’ of Hood Mountain Regional Park

Overlooking the valleys and mountains of Sonoma County — even a slice of the ocean — an admired plot of land known as Cougar Landing on the eastern ridge of Hood Mountain has seen and been through a lot.

Once an illegal marijuana growing operation, the parcel of land was swept practically clean in the past five years by devastating wildfires. Although the peak can be seen from at least five different regional and state parks as well as Highway 12, for a while the only big mammals getting an up-close view were passing mountain lions — the property’s eponymous cougars — as well as bobcats, coyotes and black bears.

As soon as this summer the 120 acres will be open to the public as the newest addition in the county’s expanding network of parkland and open space. Sonoma County Regional Parks completed its $1.02 million purchase of the property in late January, expanding Hood Mountain Regional Park to the west.

Park officials had long had their eye on the land as a key piece of natural habitat adjoining the 2,000-acre wilderness park perched above Sonoma Valley in the Mayacamas Mountains.

“You always kind of looked over at the knoll we’re walking to, and we used to look over there and say ‘Huh, I bet the view is really spectacular,'” Whitaker said on a tour of the property Tuesday.

“The view of it was not though, and that’s another piece of the story.”

Past life: Weed, crime and art

Remnants of the site’s past are ubiquitous.

Pieces of glass, bits of burnt grow pots, piles of pipes and chunks of rusted metal are scattered haphazardly in the red, shallow soil.

Two years ago, the Glass fire swept over the valley and the mountain, searing what was left of an infamous illegal marijuana cultivation site on the property. A previous fire had already destroyed RVs, pot plants and dome-like structures nestled on the site.

“The fire did a lot of our work for us,” said Sarah Phelps, a marketing specialist for Regional Parks.

“Barking dogs, razor wire, cameras ― it wasn’t a real comfortable (place). It was like ‘I shouldn’t go over there.’” Whitaker said. “It was a mess.”

The land was sold to Regional Parks by Ex Deo Libertas, LLC, whose owners are listed as John Orgon, a former real estate developer, and Kirsha Kaechele, an art curator who created the nonprofit Life Is Art Foundation.

In 2010, the property was registered to twin nonprofits, American Medicinals and the Life Is Art Foundation.

Kaechele told the Press Democrat in 2010 that American Medicinals grew cannabis for patients who belonged to their co-op. Proceeds would go to support the art foundation and provide artists a work space.

In an era before Californias voters fully legalized cannabi, the collective’s efforts — growing marijuana to support an art commune — attracted nationwide media coverage.

But neighbors filed complaints about the growing number of barking dogs, unknown visitors, heavy traffic and large generators as questions arose over the legality of the operation.

“There was a two-story scary-looking thing, even scarier when you went inside,” said Karen Davis-Brown, a Regional Parks planner.

“The property was just used for growing and the workers lived in it,” Davis-Brown said. “I remember hiking the Lawson trail and hearing the barking dogs and I ran back to my car.”

Three years later, five people were arrested in connection with an armed invasion of the commune. Orgon was charged and charged in connection with two felonies — cultivating and possessing marijuana for sale.

Ben Neuman, retired building and code enforcement manager for the county’s planning department, chuckled when he recalled the property at the end of Cougar Lane, off steep and winding Los Alamos Road.

“It was one of the few properties we received an inspection warrant for,” Neuman said. “Back then it was a rarity because growing marijuana was illegal and it was in such a remote, quiet neighborhood.”

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office deputies eventually intervened, confiscating the crop and closing down a barn used for cleaning, drying and sorting the pot.

The 2017 Nuns fire claimed the barn and the 2020 Glass fire was a deciding factor in the previous owner’s decision to sell the land, to Regional Parks officials.

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