By Paul Rogers
Her father was one of the richest men in America, a New York buggy-whip dealer who invested $1,000 with his neighbor, George Eastman, on a newfangled business to sell film and photographic plates — a decision that made him a fortune when it grew into Eastman Kodak Co.
Gertrude Strong Achilles could have lived anywhere in the world. But after New York and Hawaii, the daughter of Henry Alvah Strong settled in the hills south of San Jose in 1922, buying a scenic ranch next to her friend, George Kellogg, a vaudeville entertainer famous for his birdcalls. She lived there until her death in 1955.
Now, the property — located between Anderson and Coyote reservoirs, with stately oak trees, rugged hills and breathtaking views of Santa Clara Valley — is on its way to becoming a public park.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recently approved spending $25.1 million to buy two properties, comprising 2,748 acres, known as Coyote Highlands and Coyote Canyon. The land, which includes much of Achilles’ former ranch, will become part of the Santa Clara County parks system.
The deal is the latest in a relentless trend: Park agencies, environmental groups and open space districts have been steadily buying land and development rights along the eastern foothills of the Diablo Range over the past 20 years. The purchases have blocked development east of Highway 101 and created miles of public hiking, biking and horse-riding trails, largely ending the urban sprawl eastward that characterized much of Santa Clara County in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
“The area here could look like Daly City, or the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles,” said Robb Courtney, director of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department. “By leaving it open, there’s tremendous value for the animals, recreational access for the public and watershed protection.”
With the latest purchase, 194,218 acres — an area seven times the size of San Francisco — has been protected as permanent open space over the roughly 50-mile stretch from Henry W. Coe State Park, near Gilroy, to Calaveras Reservoir, north of Milpitas at the Alameda-Santa Clara county line.
The land includes long-preserved areas, like Joseph D. Grant County Park in the shadow of Mount Hamilton, but also relatively newly preserved areas, such as the 1,831-acre former United Technologies property, purchased for $8.6 million last year by the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority.
“There has been a turning of the page,” said Jeremy Madsen, executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance.
Indeed, Santa Clara County once was the poster child for Los Angeles-style growth. But today when Bay Area counties are ranked by the acres of permanently protected parks, wildlife refuges and open space preserves, Santa Clara County — the Bay Area’s most populous county — now is first, with 229,800 acres, according to a 2012 report from the Greenbelt Alliance.
The most recent deal for the two properties east of Morgan Hill came about when their owner, former hotelier Manou Mobedshahi, decided to sell his land to the county.
“I came to this country with nothing,” he said. “Keeping it preserved, this is the minimum that I can do. It’s going to be a jewel for people.”
Mobedshahi, 71, was a steel industry executive in Iran. But when Iran began to slip into revolution in 1979, he fled to the United States.
“I knew it was not going to be pleasant,” he said of his homeland. “There was chaos.”
After visiting relatives in Minneapolis, he made his way to San Diego and then San Francisco. There he scrimped, saved and borrowed. He bought an abandoned building in Pacific Heights and built it into the Sherman House, which became one of the world’s elite boutique hotels.
Eventually he would become a U.S. citizen and own the Savoy Hotel in San Francisco, the Sainte Claire in downtown San Jose (now The Westin San Jose) and the San Jose airport Hyatt.
He purchased the ranchlands in 1998 as a place for his two sons, then 9 and 10, to grow up and experience nature. The family planted a small orchard of persimmons, oranges, quince and other Persian fruits and marveled at the bobcats, golden eagles, mountain lions, wild turkeys and other wildlife.
Eventually, he retired from the hotel business, sold his properties and began a process to develop 25 homes on one corner of the property. But after the economic downturn, with his sons grown, and financial obligations from a divorce, Mobedshahi decided to sell the ranch.
Parks officials say the sale, now in escrow, is expected to close in mid-January.
Courtney said it will take several years for park planners to survey the land; fix fences, water systems and 30 miles of ranch roads; and come up with a plan and funding for the property, staff it with rangers and open it to the public. It will add 2.5 miles to the Bay Area Ridge Trail and link 107,000 acres of existing parks: Henry Coe State Park, Anderson Lake County Park and Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch County Park.
Most of the $25.1 million to buy the land came from the county’s Parks Charter Fund, set up by voters in the 1970s and reauthorized by them several times. In addition, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation donated $2 million toward the purchase, and the Santa Clara Open Space Authority provided $500,000.
On a recent tour of the ranch, Mobedshahi, who plans to remain a Morgan Hill resident, beamed and gazed out over vast meadows at the views south to Fremont Peak, near Hollister.
“Look at this!” he said. “In a month it will be all green and covered with wildflowers.”
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues.
When Bay Area counties were ranked by the number of acres of permanently protected parks, wildlife refuges and open space preserves, Santa Clara County ranked first, with 229,800 acres, according to a 2012 report from the Greenbelt Alliance.
Here are how some other Bay Area counties ranked:
Marin County: 185,400 acres
Sonoma County: 171,200 acres
Napa County: 122,700 acres.
Contra Costa County: 119,100 acres.
San Mateo County: 111,000 acres
Alameda County: 106,000 acres
Solano County: 57,000 acres
Source: Greenbelt Alliance
This article was originally published by the San Jose Mercury News.