Conservationists have reached a deal to preserve a chunk of oak-studded Solano County countryside with sloping rocky mesas and sweeping panoramas so intoxicating that developers have sought for decades to plop homes on the silky golden fields and bluffs.
The Solano Land Trust paid $3.5 million to buy 330 acres of what is called Green Valley, a pastoral area nestled between Vallejo and Fairfield that environmentalists say is key to the preservation of a corridor of open space stretching through Napa County all the way to Clear Lake.
The deal, reached last week, is in essence a down payment on 1,500 acres of former Indian hunting grounds and settlements that contain some of the Bay Area's most sensitive habitat. The land trust now has until February to raise an additional $10.5 million to buy the remaining 1,170 acres from White Wing Highlands Associates or the developers could exercise their right to build 185 homes.
"This is the first time in 30 years that we have the opportunity to preserve this land for the entire community, and it is really amazing to be a part of it," said Nicole Byrd, executive director of the Solano Land Trust. "It's an extraordinary asset."
The property has been the subject of numerous development plans over the past three decades, prompting furious legal and political battles. The latest building plan, by White Wing Highlands Associates, was to construct 370 homes. The development was approved by Solano County supervisors, prompting a lawsuit by the Green Valley Landowners Association and the Sierra Club claiming that the plan violated numerous provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act.
The lawsuit was settled after the land trust's agreement to buy the land was finalized.
The land, known as Rockville Trails Estates, is next to the 650-acre Rockville Hills Park, owned by Fairfield. Once the purchase is completed, the land would connect with the 800,000-acre Blue Ridge Berryessa Natural Area and form a huge corridor of open space with the potential for a regional trail system and numerous recreational opportunities for the public.
The property, which is still used for cattle grazing, has golden valleys and steep rocky ridges. There are stands of oak trees, including blue and live oaks, and extraordinary views from the bluffs toward Mount Diablo, Suisun Valley and the delta.
The core of an ancient volcano sweeps up to a mesa that is often covered in wildflowers. Golden and bald eagles have been spotted, and Indian artifacts are scattered about in undisclosed locations, indicating ancient settlements.
"It is just truly beautiful," said Solano County Supervisor Linda Seifert after a tour of the property. "You might see golden hills covered with trees, brilliant wildflowers. It's absolutely stunning in every direction. Houses don't belong there. They just don't."
The latest effort to save the land was essentially instigated by about 750 neighbors who are part of the nonprofit Green Valley Landowners Association. They joined the Sierra Club and filed suit in 2008, questioning whether there would be adequate water and sewage capability for the proposed homes. They also pointed out that there is an earthquake fault that runs through the property.
"We saw the way the development was planned as decimating the whole mountain, and we just said it can't be done this way," said Bill Mayben, the president of the landowners association. "They hadn't accounted for water, sewage and traffic. It just wasn't well thought out."
The collapse of the Bay Area housing market caused the value of the land, which was once worth about $125 million, to plummet. Seeing an opportunity, the association joined with the land trust and made an offer that the developer accepted on condition that the lawsuit against the county be settled. The settlement agreement would allow the developer to build half the approved number of homes if the land trust cannot come up with the rest of the money.
"We never could have afforded this property in the past, but market forces have brought the price down to the point that we could afford it," Mayben said. "To get it for $13.5 million is a great deal for the environmental community."
The first $3 million of the initial $3.5 million payment came from Fairfield and county open space assessment district funds that were approved by voters about two decades ago. Byrd said the California Coastal Conservancy has agreed to pay another $3 million toward the purchase of the rest of the land. The trust hopes to get the balance of the money from public and private foundations.
Plans are in the works to complete a portion of the Bay Area Ridge Trail through Rockville Hills, opening up miles of open space to the public. The trust may offer docent-led hikes through the 330 acres, but Byrd said public access will be limited until the rest of the land has been purchased.
"The first part is a done deal, but clearly the challenge now is to find the resources to purchase the remaining acreage," Seifert said. "It's extremely important. We need to do everything we can to make sure we secure the remaining property."