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Franklin Canyon Protected

CA - The Muir Heritage Land Trust has protected 423 acres once slated for large-scale development projects in Franklin Canyon.
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Franklin Canyon Protected

Saved from Development

The Muir Heritage Land Trust has protected 423 acres of open space in Franklin Canyon, CA. The property is part of 483 acres once slated for large-scale development projects, which were twice curtailed by local voters.

“Many people throughout the community have been working to protect this property for a long time,” said Linus Eukel, Executive Director of the Muir Heritage Land Trust. “This purchase will not only protect a fragile ecosystem, significant watersheds and key public trail alignments, it will permanently preserve important habitat for special-status species.”

The Franklin Canyon property is adjacent to the 702-acre Fernandez Ranch, which the Land Trust purchased in 2005. The new acquisition and Fernandez Ranch combined will total 1,125 acres of open space, providing contiguous wildlife habitat that is no longer threatened with destructive fragmentation. In addition, the properties will accommodate significant public trail linkages for the 500-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail. To secure the Franklin Canyon purchase, the land trust has two years to raise the $1,780,000 purchase price, plus $650,000 in additional funds for the costs associated with the sale.

Protecting a fragile ecosystem

Wooded hills on the property, visible just south of the John Muir Parkway (Highway 4), provide a scenic display rising behind the Franklin Canyon Golf Course. The land is part of the city of Hercules, and is bordered on the south and east by undeveloped lands (including Fernandez Ranch) that are part of the Briones Hills Agricultural Preservation Area. Community support for the property has been strong for nearly two decades, galvanized by the city’s past approvals of large development projects since 1990.

The land trust’s proposed purchase is home to several special-status species, including the diablo helianthella (known as the Mount Diablo sunflower), the California red-legged frog, the western pond turtle, and the Alameda whipsnake. Raptors spotted on site include the Cooper’s hawk, white-tailed kite and the northern harrier. Golden eagles occasionally forage on the open grasslands.

Dense stands of coast live oaks and California bay occupy the ravines and north-facing slopes, mingled with other tree varieties on the fringes, including valley oak, California buckeye, black oak and elderberry. In addition, to oak-bay woodlands, the land includes four other types of plant communities: annual grassland, northern coyote brush scrub, central coast riparian scrub and freshwater marsh.

The acquisition will help protect two important riparian areas: the Rodeo Creek watershed and the Refugio Creek watershed. When Franklin Canyon is added to Fernandez Ranch, the Muir Heritage Land Trust will own nearly one-fifth of the Rodeo Creek watershed. The Land Trust participates in the Contra Costa Resource Conservation District’s Rodeo Watershed Vision Plan, which works with communities in addressing the area’s recreation, flood management, creek bank stability, fish and wildlife habitat and other watershed issues.

The land trust manages a preserve one mile downstream from the property, which is home to the last known population of Contra Costa goldfield (Lasthenia conjugens) in Contra Costa County. The Contra Costa goldfield is a federally threatened species of native plant. The proposed purchase will help protect the Rodeo Creek watershed traversing the preserve, which would have been impacted by heavy development upstream.

The threat

Plans for large-scale development of Franklin Canyon began in 1986, when the City of Hercules considered annexation of the land into the city, a general plan amendment, and pre-zoning for a major development. In 1990, the city approved the development project applications to build up to 1,300 housing units and a 200-300 room resort on the land, and to improve the golf course.

Before construction began on the first project, Hercules approved another development proposal in 1992 for the construction of 822 housing units. Citizens launched a referendum, and Measure G was placed on the ballot. Hercules voters rejected the second development plan. In 1994, the golf course was separated from the proposed project site by Hercules and Contra Costa County.

The most recent development proposal, in 2001, included more than 500 housing units, a 100-room hotel, offices and stores on 483 acres. That project would have required extensive grading, removing more than 3,000 oak trees and destruction of 271 acres of habitat. The Draft Environmental Impact Report of 2002 stated “The proposed project would require substantial removal of native habitat and sensitive natural community types” and “would have a substantial impact on habitat for special-status species….” The EIR also stated the project would result in a loss of wetlands and noted the potential for the degradation of downstream riparian areas.

Citizen support

Citing the impacts of the plan on the land, many citizens advocated limiting development and providing more protections for ecologically sensitive areas. They created a ballot initiative, Measure M, to let the voters decide. The initiative’s petition described the area as providing “watershed, wild animal and plant habitat, recreation, beautiful views, proximity to nature, and a striking, peaceful, rural contrast to the heavily built-up parts of the City.” Measure M passed in 2004.

Sixty of the 483 acres that were part of the most recent development proposal are not part of the land trust’s acquisition. The sixty-acre parcel, located on the southwest portion of the property, is subject to the provisions of Measure M.

The Muir Heritage Land Trust will now embark on its five-year Keep It Wild Campaign to protect our endangered wild lands. The campaign’s goal is to raise the $8.5 million needed to purchase key open space in central Contra Costa County, provide funds to restore and maintain the acquired lands, provide environmental education and support the organization’s work.

The Franklin Canyon purchase is a major component of the Campaign, and a crucial open space to preserve for its wildlife habitat, public trail opportunities and scenic respite. “So many people have worked so long to preserve the natural beauty of this land. We’re expecting the same community support we’ve seen for so many years,” said Eukel. “This is the opportunity so many have hoped for—to at last protect this open space as a home for wildlife and a refuge for people from the stresses in our busy lives.”

Photo by Paul Garber

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