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[whitespace] Midpeninsula inks a $30 million deal preserving former Alma College site

Los Gatos--After months of haggling over terms, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has inked a contract to acquire the former Alma College site, set on 1,071 acres of wooded hillsides above Lexington Reservoir.

The complex agreement, which the Board of Directors approved 7-0 at a March 10 meeting, is the costliest in the district's history and the first open space agreement that includes potential development. Officials say it was the district's last chance to get the land, which it has been eyeing since 1975.

Under the deal, Midpeninsula will pay $10.5 million for on option on the upper 811 acres, but the remaining 260 acres, on the lower property along Highway 17, are being eyed for possible development of a golf course and up to 50 luxury homes by the landowner, Arlie Land and Cattle of Cottage Grove, Oregon.

If the district wants all the land, plus the timber rights, it's going to have to pay a whopping $30.2 million.

"I'm terribly concerned about the price of the land and the intricacies of the deal, but I just can't in my conscience turn it down," board member Betsy Crowder said.

The district had considered buying the land in the past, when the land was much cheaper. "We've looked at it over the last 20 years, but each time it's been about $10 million out of our reach," said board president Jed Cyr.

District General Manager Craig Britton has submitted a grant proposal for the remaining money to the Packard Foundation, which he says is the only organization that might be able to come up with the money. Britton says he puts the odds of getting it at "about 50/50." Getting federal or state grants isn't possible, he said.

Midpeninsula also gets an option to pay $5.2 million for the timber rights, which are owned by Big Creek Lumber, a Santa Cruz County company which won state approval for a limited harvest on the land as early as April 15--which is also the deadline for Midpeninsula to come up with the money for the rights. Although Big Creek is considered one of the most environmentally friendly logging companies in the state, it won permission from the state in November to take up to 60 percent of the biggest trees from a large part of the land.

Arlie bought the land in December 1997 from Hong Kong Metro Realty for more than $17 million.

The lower property is the subject of an ongoing civil suit between developer Pete Denevi and Arlie. Denevi, who had an option to buy 211 acres on the property when Arlie bought the land, has been trying for years to turn it into a golf course and country club. Denevi's suit claims Arlie backed out of a deal to sell the land to Denevi.

Denevi was handed a setback in January when he lost part of a Superior Court case that would have reinstated his option to buy the land.

Arlie's land acquisition manager, John Musumeci, said he wouldn't comment on the contract with Midpeninsula.

The company has plans to apply to the county for a lot line adjustment, which would redraw the property lines that criss-cross the property to cluster potential home sites along Bear Creek Road.

But if Arlie can't get those lots recognized, there's an escape hatch built into the Midpeninsula contract that lets the land company back out of the deal. Arlie hasn't filed for recognition of the lots.

Under the agreement, Midpeninsula gets an option to buy the rest of the property for $14.5 million. But if Arlie gets approval for development on the lots, that money goes back to Midpeninsula.

The unusual setup, spelled out in the 150-page contract, suggests that the controversy surrounding the property may not be over yet.

Preservationists and environmental groups fought vigorously to derail Denevi's golf course proposal in 1997, which they accomplished by getting requirements included in his final environmental impact report that would have added almost another half-million dollars worth of additional studies.

Denevi's Los Gatos Country Club application has been on hold for more than a year. The county Planning Commission accepted a status report March 4, which said that Denevi hadn't committed to funding the study. The application remains on hold.

Despite the golf course provision, several preservationist groups urged the district to approve Midpeninsula's deal with Arlie.

"It's a tradeoff we're willing to accept," says Debbie Ruddock, director of the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club. "We support the general outlines of the agreement."

Ruddock says that the Sierra Club's support of the purchase doesn't amount to a de facto endorsement of a golf course.

"We're definitely not giving up our right to comment or oppose it," she said. "[The deal] doesn't require the Sierra Club or any other groups to lay down their arms."

Arlie will control any development proposals. The district has no ability to approve or disapprove any plans, or issue any permits.

The deal was also endorsed by Greenbelt Alliance and Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods.

The Committee for Green Foothills sent a letter to the district in support of acquiring the open space but stopped short of endorsing the deal.

The city councils of Monte Sereno and Cupertino both passed resolutions supporting the acquisition.

"It's probably the best we can do," says Celia Thompson-Taupin, a neighbor of the land and founder of Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods, a group of mountain residents that fought the golf course proposal. "I'm really grateful to have a large part of the property protected. I'd hope that more of it can be protected through private fundraising and that a good deal of the timber rights can be repurchased."

Midpeninsula says it will call the area the Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, but says hikers and bikers probably won't be allowed on the land for up to five years.

The property was used as an estate in the late 19th century and around the turn of the century was sold to the Jesuits, who built a seminary and several vineyards on the property in 1934. The former seminary buildings are in disrepair and most were damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The Jesuits sold the land in 1989 for $12 million to Hong Kong Metro Realty, based in Madison, Wis., and run by Dr. Jun Lee, nephew of Hong Kong casino billionaire Stanley Ho.

Lee sold the land to Arlie in December 1997 for more than $17 million.

The triangular-shaped lower parcel lies between Highway 17 and Bear Creek Road. The irregularly-shaped upper parcels lie on both sides of Bear Creek Road and surround the Presentation Center, a conference and retreat facility run by the Sisters of Presentation.

The western parts of the upper parcels are crossed by a network of trails and roads built by the Jesuits, while the southern parcel is the steepest and most heavily wooded part of the land and can't be easily accessed. The two upper parcels nearly stretch to the Santa Cruz County line.

The property is also home to about 45 horses, which are boarded at a stable leased to its operator.

Although the property was heavily logged in the late 18th century, the district says it is one of the largest and finest second-growth redwood forests remaining in the county. Some redwoods on the property are believed to be 800 to 900 years old.
Jeff Kearns

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