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The Martinez City Council is asking residents whether they want the city to pursue buying the Alhambra Highlands to keep it from being developed — a decade after the council approved a plan to build on 109 hillside lots.

“The development is not a proposed development — it actually has entitlements and, so, they have a right to build if they want to, but we are trying to purchase this property and keep it forever as open space,” Mayor Rob Schroder said.

The council back in July 2011 approved Texas-based Richfield Investment Corp.’s plan to develop 72 of the site’s 297.6 acres located about a mile south of John Muir’s historic home and north of the Briones wilderness. Many believe it was actually part of Muir’s estate at some point.

Coupled with a soft housing market and delays in construction, a push to buy the property back from Richfield picked up steam. Richfield agreed to delay grading until 2014, while third parties explored buying the project.

An 1894 parcel map of what today is called Alhambra Highlands includes property that originally belonged to renowned naturalist John Muir. Portions of the ridge property have already been designated for development, but the city of Martinez wants to buy the land back and have it preserved. (Image courtesy of John Muir National Historic Site)

A series of agreements between the city and Richfield ensued, with the emphasis shifting from third parties like the John Muir Land Trust and the East Bay Regional Park District buying the land, to the city being the buyer. Both entities could still play a part in the acquisition.

The city had the property appraised at $9.25 million in 2018, an amount the city offered Richfield in August 2019, subject to the city submitting a tax measure to voters. Negotiations followed while the city extended project approvals. While negotiating agreements have expired, the project approval doesn’t expire until Jan. 6, 2022.

“The development is not a proposed development … but we are trying to purchase this property and keep it forever as open space.”

Mayor Rob Schroder

In May, Richfield submitted a counteroffer to the city of $19.25 million and said that amount is non-negotiable, according to a staff report.

The council this past Wednesday determined it still wants to buy the property to use as open space, deciding it wanted to ask residents for input before moving forward with a fundraising plan.

Other options presented Wednesday — and likely to be presented as options in a poll — included calling a special election for June 7, 2022; trying to extend the negotiating agreement with Richfield; continuing to process the final development map for Richfield to develop the property; and putting a tax measure on the ballot to fund the purchase.

The city could also still look for funding from private sources and attempt to negotiate a new purchase price with Richfield.

The undeveloped Alhambra Highlands is seen in an undated aerial photo. Martinez lies to the west, with Carquinez Strait bounding the land on the north, and state Highway 4 to the south. (Google image)

“We have been negotiating for so long, and there is a strong desire in the community (to preserve the land), and we’ll just have to see if that desire translates into a willingness to pay for it,” Councilmember Lara DeLaney said.

Council members said the language of the poll is important, as is the amount of money the city believes it needs to ask for. More communication with the developer would likely be necessary before putting together questions.

The council directed staff to find a professional consultant to administer the poll before the end of the year. It also appointed Vice Mayor Debbie McKillop and Councilmember Mark Ross to a subcommittee to help the consultant shape the poll.

“This is a very special property for the city of Martinez, and I’m very interested in moving forward and figuring out if there’s a way to make this happen,” Councilmember Brianne Zorn said.