Cattle graze on the Alhambra Highlands property in Martinez. The city has hopes of purchasing the property from a Texas developer to preserve as open space. (Photo by Sam Richards/Bay City News Foundation)

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The city of Martinez and a Texas-based real estate company have formally agreed to keep negotiating for a sale of 297 acres of hilly land south of state Highway 4 — property believed to have been part of environmentalist John Muir’s estate — for preservation as open space.

The Martinez City Council, at an April 1 special meeting, approved an agreement to continue negotiations with the Richfield Real Estate Corporation for the purchase of the land between Alhambra Avenue and Alhambra Valley Road. It is about a mile south of the home of Muir, which is now a National Park Service historical site.

The newest agreement runs until mid-July, and could be extended into January 2021.

Martinez and Richfield have had a long history with this piece of land. Richfield’s predecessor company, Richland Development Corp., originally approached the city in July 1990 with the first housing plan for that property.

In July 2011, the City Council approved Alhambra Highlands, a planned development of 109 single-family houses on 76 acres within the 297-acre parcel.

But there were delays in construction, with a soft housing market at the time, and physical challenges in building on the hilly terrain.

Richfield then 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. None stepped up.

In July 2016, five years after the Richfield housing project was approved, city officials began talks with the Texas-based developer to buy the land to preserve as open space. To date, the city and Richfield have not been able to come to terms on a sale.

Area conservationists have long been encouraging this sale. A small part of the 297 acres is believed to have originally belonged to environmentalist Muir, and they see Alhambra Highlands as a link in the envisioned John Muir Heritage Trail, a 17-mile loop incorporating existing trails in nearby Briones Regional Park, the John Muir National Historic Site (Mount Wanda) and surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, plans for the housing project remain alive, with Richfield proceeding with various approvals needed to build.