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After 9 years, efforts to preserve Alhambra Hills as open space are still alive

By January 16, 2020 No Comments
An overhead view of the Alhambra Highlands in Martinez. (Photo courtesy of Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee)

Jamie Fox loves climbing up the hill near his Martinez home and watching the sunsets. One recent afternoon, showing a visitor these rain-rejuvenated green hills, where cattle graze and hawks soar, Fox said the overcast sky might preclude any show at all.

Or, with a small break in the clouds at the right moment, it could be spectacular.

“The sunsets seen from here are the best,” said Fox, who has been a vocal leader in efforts to preserve a hilly 297-acre parcel from housing development.

A segment of it is believed to be part of the estate of renowned naturalist John Muir, whose residence survives about a mile to the north as a National Park Service historic site.

More than three years after talks between the city of Martinez and Houston-based landowner Richfield Investment Corp. started, negotiations are languishing for a sale of the Alhambra Hills, that hilly land south of state Highway 4 between Alhambra Avenue and Alhambra Valley Road.

Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder said it’s been six to eight months since the City Council has gotten an update on the Alhambra Hills land.

“We’re kind of at an impasse right now,” Schroder said. “There’s been no movement, either in the negotiations or any move to develop the property.”

Cattle graze on the green hills in the Alhambra Highlands in Martinez. (Photo by Sam Richards)

In July 2011, the Martinez City Council approved a project by Richfield to build Alhambra Highlands, 109 single-family homes on 76 acres within the 297-acre parcel. But there were delays in construction, with a soft housing market and physical challenges in building on the hilly terrain.

And there were rumblings all along from some, both within and beyond Martinez’s borders, about preserving the land as open space. Then, at the City Council’s request, Richfield agreed to delay project grading until at least April 2014 to give outside parties time to explore buying the land to keep it as open space. No such parties stepped up.

In July 2016, five years after the Richfield housing project was approved, city officials began talks with the Texas-based developer for a possible sale of that land to the city, with an eye to making it permanent open space.

Both the East Bay Regional Park District and the Martinez-based John Muir Land Trust have shown interest in being part of an Alhambra Hills land purchase, or its aftermath.

Linus Eukel, John Muir Land Trust executive director, said his organization will let the city take the lead role in negotiations for a sale. But the land trust has offered whatever services needed — land stewardship, fundraising — once Richfield becomes a “willing seller.”

“We’re happy to figure out what that (role) would take, and accept that responsibility, should they wish for us to get involved,” Eukel said.

East Bay Regional Park District spokesman Dave Mason said the park district is always on the lookout for chances to save open spaces that offer recreational opportunities; that Briones Regional Park is within sight of the Alhambra Hills, and given John Muir’s direct link to the land, are also attractive points, he said.

A 1894 parcel map outlines the property atop what now is called Alhambra Highlands in Martinez, showing the parcel owned by renowned naturalist John Muir. (Image courtesy of John Muir National Historic Site)

Beyond loving this land for its own merits, Fox hopes the Alhambra Hills space will one day host the last link in what he envisions as the John Muir Heritage Trail. This proposed 17-mile loop would include 12 miles of existing trails within Briones Regional Park, the John Muir National Historic Site (Mount Wanda) and surrounding areas.

This proximity to other open space, including the John Muir Land Trust’s recently acquired Almond Ranch property a few miles west of Martinez, makes the Alhambra Hills preservation a strategic move as well, Fox said. And Eukel said the direct connection to John Muir — for whom his organization is named — adds preservation value.

The will to preserve the land is still there. Schroder said the City Council’s wishes haven’t changed over time, and that the council still wants to see the land as publicly-accessible open space.

“But we’re negotiating without any money to back us up,” said Schroder, noting that the city has offered Richfield tax credits to help make a sale happen.

A Bay Area representative of Richfield did not return calls for comment.

Jamie Fox looks toward “John Muir’s Hill,” believed to be the first piece of Martinez land owned by naturalist John Muir in the late 1800s. It’s part of the Alhambra Highlands parcel Martinez residents are trying to make permanent open space. (Photo by Sam Richards)

Though Richfield could legally start building its houses any time, the fact that it hasn’t — and that there’s still widespread interest in the Martinez community for seeing Alhambra Hills become publicly accessible land — are good signs, several people said. Eukel, who has overseen a number of land purchases in the name of preservation, said such negotiations usually take time.

“It’s a long song, and we’re probably someplace in the middle,” Eukel said.

In the meantime, Fox will keep making his periodic forays up into the hills, up to the gnarled curved oaks to watch the sunsets (and the deer and the turkeys and the hawks). The biggest trees, he said, are at the top, where they get sun all day long. He also will continue his work with the local Facebook group Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee.

He hopes that, one day soon, he and others won’t have to pass the “no trespassing” sign to do it.

“How amazing to have the honor of trying to raise awareness of saving John Muir’s Hill,” he said.