Martinez prides itself on many things.
Martinez is the birthplace of the "Yankee Clipper," Joe DiMaggio. Local legend claims that the Martinez Cocktail was concocted by a barkeep in Martinez during the Gold Rush days. That drink came be known as the martini.
Martinez is also home to the John Muir National Historical Site where world-renowned naturalist, John Muir, lived for the last several decades of his life and penned most of his acclaimed works.
When I was a child, my cousin gave me a book on John Muir written by former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. I was so enthralled reading about this man, his early life in Scotland, his family's move to Wisconsin, his knack for invention, and his travels across the United States, down to Florida and then finally to California and to Yosemite.
Never did I dream that someday I would be the mayor of the town where John Muir lived with his family and is laid to rest.
Because of Muir's influence, and the hard work and foresight of residents, past and present, most of the ridgelines surrounding Martinez are held in a land trust as open space for perpetuity. Other lands are owned by East Bay Regional Park District and the National Park Service and also protected.
However, there is one ridgeline in southern Martinez located between Reliez Valley Road and Alhambra Avenue that is slated for the development of up to 109 residential units on 76.2 acres, with 221.3 acres kept as open space. The development is called Alhambra Highlands and the ridgeline is called the Alhambra Hills.
Because development could commence in the next few months, many are calling for the development to be stopped or the property to be purchased as open space.
Although it really has not been a secret, it has recently been reported that John Muir and the Strentzel family owned that ridgeline and much of the acreage throughout the area. Some feel that since the Muirs owned this land at one time in history it is reason alone that it should be saved from development.
Because the possibility of this property being developed is getting close to a reality, many people don't understand why development was ever approved and why the city cannot stop it.
Well, there is a long history of development planned for this property and it starts in 1973 with the development of the city's "new" general plan. In that plan the "Saddle" (as it was known then) was designated for development.
In 1987, with the adoption of the Alhambra Hills Specific Plan, the "Saddle" was still designated for development with development standards being refined.
In 1990, the Alhambra Highlands subdivision/planned unit development was approved by the City Council and found to be conforming to the general plan and the Alhambra Hills Specific Plan. At that time, the approved project was up to 216 residential units on 122.4 acres, with the remaining 175.1 acres to be open space.
Soon after that approval, the housing market went south and the project stalled. It was also discovered that the Alameda whip snake, and endangered species, was on the property and the owners were required to set aside more area for habitat.
In 2008, the owners applied for a revised subdivision/planned unit development that reduced the number of residential units from 216 to 112, and the development area from 122.4 acres to 76.2 acres.
Of the 1,475 trees on the site, the number to be removed dropped from 713 to 625. When the City Council approved the revised map, the number of units was dropped to 109 and trees to be removed to 600.
Many have asked why the City Council would approve development on such a precious piece of land that we are now trying to save as open space. The answer is very simple, although painful.
Development of this property was approved back in 1973. It conforms to the general plan that was adopted in 1973 and the Alhambra Hills Specific Plan that was refined in 1987.
To not approve the revised map that was a reduction in development acreage and an increase in dedicated open space would have exposed the city to a costly legal battle that the city would have lost. It would have cost millions of dollars in legal fees and who knows how many tens of millions in judgments and penalties.
Does anyone remember the near bankruptcy of Half Moon Bay? A similar development issue arose which that city fought and lost. They were handed down a judgment against them for $36.8 million.
Only through a settlement agreement with the developer did the city reduce the judgment against them and not disincorporate. In the end, the project was built.
Now that the 30-month moratorium on the start of any construction on the Alhambra Hills has run its course, many are scrambling to find a solution and are urging the city to take the lead.
After hearing from scores of people and a personal plea from Robert Muir, John Muir's great-great-grandson, I have agreed to host a meeting of key individuals representing the National Park Service, East Bay Regional Parks, Muir Heritage Land Trust, Alhambra Hills Opens Space Committee, Martinez Environmental Group, and others to brainstorm and map out a strategy for the acquisition of these hills as open space.
Legal action does not seem to be feasible, but purchase of the property is a possibility.
The Martinez City Council has authorized up to $5,000 to perform an appraisal of the property which is the first step.
We have opened an initial dialogue with the property owners. The bulldozers and chain saws will not be cranking up for a several months, but we have no time to waste.
Schroder is the mayor of Martinez. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.