Alhambra Highlands: could it become the next Noyo Canyon?
Following this week’s Planning Commission meeting on the long-proposed Alhambra Highlands residential development, a suggestion put forth by one meeting attendee has taken root. The possibility of raising money to buy the property from the developer to establish a public open space link between Briones Regional Park and Mt. Wanda, Franklin Hills and the Carquinez Regional Shoreline.
Serving as an analogous example, a Bay Area land conservation group announced this week it was successful in raising enough money – $7.5 million – over a five-month period to purchase 426 acres of old-growth redwood forest, saving it from an impending timber harvest and consigning the property to permanent parkland.
By raising funds from a wide range of donors to purchase 426 acres of old-growth redwoods in Mendocino County, the Save the Redwoods League achieved remarkable success, particularly in light of the current economic realities, said spokesperson Jennifer Benito. The land, located in the Noyo River area, is owned by logging enterprise Willits Redwood Company; company officials had recently received a sign-off on a five-year timber harvest plan from California’s Department of Forestry and were moving forward on the plan when environmentalists approached to discuss a possible sale.
Bruce Burton, co-owner of the Willits Redwood Company, who also serves as the mayor of Willits, said in a phone interview Friday that although “our appraisal was substantially more than what we sold the property for,” he and his partner decided to go through with the deal due to the fact that “the property had a lot of interest from third-party individuals.”
“There was a contingent that think cutting any redwood tree is blasphemous and it is a popular thing to take whatever legal and personal means to inhibit people from doing their business,” said Burton. “We were concerned somewhat that we would become even less popular than we are right now if we went ahead with that logging. While it might be fun to sell a piece of property for less than it’s worth, that doesn’t feed anybody.”
Citing that his first and foremost concern is keeping his mill operating and paychecks flowing to his employees, Burton said Willits Lumber Company bought the property in 2007 with the intent of maintaining a timberland property that would produce product – and jobs – for decades to come.
However, said Burton, environmental activists and preservation entities pulled every punch to stop any logging by filing civil lawsuits. At one point the Center for Biological Diversity threatened the Willits Lumber Company with litigation over the plan to destroy the old growth redwood forest on the land and the wildlife impacts that would occur as a result.
The Center’s Justin Augustin confirmed Friday that the litigation “became unnecessary,” after the Save the Redwood League took up the gauntlet vis-à-vis trying to buy the property.
The Center for Biological Diversity is familiar to many in Martinez as that was the same group that moved to sue Richfield Investment Corporation over the Alhambra Highlands development, also home to the Alameda whipsnake according to federal and state wildlife management agencies.
According to the Center, “the threat of a lawsuit by the Center and the Alhambra Valley Improvement Association, along with the designation of critical habitat for the Alameda whipsnake, forced suspension of a development permit in 2000 for the … planned 200-plus-home subdivision in whipsnake habitat at Alhambra Highlands in Martinez.”
Burton does not have a high opinion of those who sought to stop him from earning his livelihood and doing what he saw fit with his property. After all, the U.S. Constitution is based on the concept of inviolable private property rights. Ricardo Sabella expressed the same sentiment at the Planning Commission meeting.
While being grilled by an Alhambra Valley resident
“The thing about this litigation is that it’s a business to them. It isn’t about saving the environment, it’s about billable hours … the losers get stuck with the legal fees,” said Burton. “I don’t think their hearts are any purer than anybody else. In order to have standing in court, you’ve got to find something, such as an endangered species … those are pennies from heaven for these people.”
After Burton and co-owner Chris Baldo received permission from a slew of agencies for their logging plan, which Burton said was the equivalent of an Environmental Impact Report, there was a 30-day required public comment period in case anybody “took issue with the approved plan,” he said.
“That’s when we were notified by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity and a local environmental center that said well, guys, we think you have an inadequate plan, we’re going to sue you,” said Burton, explaining that once the Department of Forestry approves a timber harvest plan, the logger has five years to execute. “We sat down with those groups and said we will forego the first year of the plan, we won’t touch the trees. If you guys find someone to buy [the land] … we said we would act in good faith and sell it at a price that we are comfortable with, in return, you drop your lawsuit.”
Last year, the Willits Lumber Company set a date of April 1, 2011 for a buyer to raise the cash; the Save the Redwoods League did it in time with a couple of weeks to spare.
“I think that it was a substantial move from how those kinds of entities usually work,” said Burton, indicating that wheels on the sale moved more quickly than usual. “Time is money in the real world, we were making payments on the property, just like anybody that has an investment. All we said was that we would negotiate in good faith, if somebody could come up with the money … that’s what happened. A deal is a deal. I’m satisfied.”
Save the Redwoods League’s Benito said Friday that “people came out of the woodwork,” during the five month fundraising period.
“The opportunity [to purchase the land] came up and we were able to respond. People donated from all over the country. We have a strong online component [to the fundraising effort] but it also took a lot of face-to-face meetings with major donors,” said Benito. Her recommendation to parties interested in accomplishing a similar conservation coup would be to start organizing, now.
“It will take bringing all parties together and asking, what would the price point be, what can we do? Working together to protect the property,” said Benito.
© 2010 Gibson Publications
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