Stewardship

Could the ghost of John Muir save Alhambra Hills from development?

August 8, 2013

Between Mount Wanda and Briones Regional Park, on a ridge surrounded by patchwork housing and home to the odd ranch or two, lies the Alhambra Hills.

Just minutes away from the Muir homestead in Martinez, it is easy to imagine John Muir himself traversing these undulating hills. And according to recent first hand accounts, it’s likely that he did.

For the past two years, a quiet battle has been unfolding in the council chambers, newspapers and farmers markets of Martinez. Led by the Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee (AHOSC), the group has been rousing community support to save this historically significant piece of land from development. Currently, the land is owned by developer Richfield Investment Corporation, whose plan to construct a 110-home subdivision was approved in 2011.

Committee member, Jamie Fox looks out to the Alhambra Hills and Mount Diablo  from the top of Mount Wanda. Photo: AHOSC.
Committee member, Jamie Fox looks out to the Alhambra Hills and Mount Diablo from the top of Mount Wanda. Photo: AHOSC.

“We came together around the concept of trying to find a way to buy these hills as open space because they’re so iconic,” said Tim Platt, a member of the Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee. “There’s beautiful wildlife up there, the oaks are tremendous, there are endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake and there is even talk about it being a pathway for mountain lions.”

More recently, the group found John Muir’s footprint on the land. First hand accounts from Ross Hanna, Muir’s grandson, and David Hanna, his great grandson, have confirmed that the family owned land on the hills. Conservationists are now hoping that a Muir family connection to the land would add further reason for its protection.

Dating back over 100 years, this photo shows the Muir homestead with the  Alhambra Hills and its wind sculpted oak trees in the background. Many of these trees, at risk of being  removed, still cover the hills today. Photo: John Muir NHS.
The Muir homestead with the Alhambra Hills and its wind sculpted oak trees in the background. Photo: John Muir NHS.

David Hanna’s home is nestled behind an overgrown garden on a quiet road on the outskirts of Mount Wanda. Seated upon a floral couch in a living room bedecked with family photos, Hanna explains how the Muirs and his wife’s family, the Strentzels, owned around 2,600 acres of land in the Martinez area. This included what they referred to as the “East Hill,” now known as the Alhambra Hills, which Wanda, Muir’s daughter, later inherited.

As Hanna explains, both he and Ross Hanna have fond memories of hunting and tramping around the hills, including the Alhambra Hills, as children.

“I’ve been all over those hills,” said David Hanna. “Like [roller] coasters we used to come down those fire trails as kids.”

John Muir, 1838-1914.
John Muir, 1838-1914.

First hand accounts and family records have offered the initial insight into the history of land ownership in the Alhambra Hills. The AHOSC is now searching for county deeds and official records that will help solidify their case and confirm the land’s added value.

“We’re on the hunt now for county records and the initial indication is looking for the probate package from Muir when he died which would show what he gave to his heirs,” explained Platt. “We’ve requested that but there’s a possibility that it’s disappeared.”

It has been a long battle over the development of the Alhambra Hills. In the early 1970’s a housing development was first proposed upon the ridge line, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the Martinez city council finalized a plan. Over a decade later in 2011, the Richfield Investment Corporation Alhambra Highlands project was approved and sparked the creation of the AHOSC.

While the original 1990 plan included three separate subdivisions with a total of 216 units, the presence of the threatened Alameda whipsnake meant the proposal was downsized to include 218-acres of whipsnake habitat. The plan now includes a minimized 110- home subdivision with 10,000 square feet blocks along the ridge.

“They’re going to be large lots with a fair amount of landscaping and a lot of iconic trees will be gone. That’s a tough issue” said Platt.  “There are a lot of people in this town that understand the value of those trees, especially the oaks, and some of those have got to be at least 200 years old.”

Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee member, Jamie Fox has chronicled hundreds of these wind swept oak trees which rise from the long, sun kissed grass carpeting the hills. He refers to them as “majestic” and admires their knotted branches and curved trunks from his home at the base of the Alhambra Hills.

An avid hiker, Fox envisions the creation of a nexus of trails running from the Canal Trail and Mount Diablo through the Alhambra Hills and connecting to Briones Regional Park and Mount Wanda. He presented this idea at a Martinez city council meeting last year and proposed the trail be named after the late Hulet Hornbeck.

Possible trail connections running through the Alhambra Hills with links to Briones Regional Park, Mount Wanda and possibly Mount Diablo. Image: AHOSC/Google Earth.
Possible trail connections running through the Alhambra Hills with links to Briones Regional Park, Mount Wanda and possibly Mount Diablo. Image: AHOSC/Google Earth.

Back at Fox’s home he explains how his two year old son bears the legacy of Muir through his middle name and hopes that someday they will both be able to walk the Alhambra Hills as open space.

“John Muir’s enduring spirit, to me, is thinking differently,” Fox said. “During the industrial revolution he decided to go for a walk. Once he recognized the beauty of special areas, he helped others fall in love with the power of nature so that our children will have the same areas to fall in love with and be nurtured by.”

Richfield Investment Corporation president Ricardo Sabella promised he would forestall any grading or building until April 2014 — a fast approaching deadline for AHOSC.

“Visibility, which is a key part of what we’re trying to achieve, has risen to a level where everyone knows what the issue is, knows it’s there and knows someone is trying to do something about it,” said Platt. “And everyone agrees, lets buy the land, that makes sense.”

While Sabella has said he is willing to negotiate a price for the property, a figure has not been disclosed and according to Platt, the actual purchase of the land is beyond the capabilities of a citizen group such as the AHOSC. Rather, the committee hopes that in the coming months larger bay area organizations, able to broker a deal, will join forces to help save the hills.

This wind pruned oak tree is one of over 800 dotting the Alhambra Hills.  Many of these risk being removed should the development project move forward. Photo: AHOSC.
This wind pruned oak tree is one of over 800 dotting the Alhambra Hills.
Many of these risk being removed should the development project move forward. Photo: AHOSC.

“What we’re trying to do is build the fire, build the heat and build the public base of enthusiasm and knowledge about the land, and encourage the right people to get involved.”

In the front yard of David Hanna’s home there is a quiet stillness that makes the criss-crossing highways and Martinez’s Shell oil refinery seem light years away.

Having lived here for 67 years, Hanna is no stranger to the gradual development that has changed much of the land John Muir himself called home. And like his great grandfather, he enjoys a quiet life in the hills.

“It’s really peaceful out here,” says Hanna, “We like it that way.”

Alessandra Bergamin is a Bay Nature editorial intern.

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