ANTIOCH -- In a huge victory for environmentalists and open space advocates, roughly 1,900 acres at the foot of Mount Diablo that once included an ambitious plan to create a Blackhawk-like luxury home community will become the latest addition to the East Bay Regional Park District.

The rapidly growing park district agreed this week to purchase the property for $14.24 million -- among its most expensive purchases ever -- from Roddy Group LLC, a partnership that includes ex-rodeo star and longtime cattle rancher Jack Roddy.

The deal caps decades of political and financial wrangling over Roddy Ranch and marks a sharp reversal from the bold effort to capitalize on the region's building boom by luring deep-pocketed executives to Antioch with estates that would complement the city's miles of affordable tract housing.

But the plan, compromised by bureaucratic red tape and persistent financial challenges that climaxed with the housing meltdown, never got off the ground.

Instead of 20,000-square-foot lots, the land will some day be home to a new regional park.

Tuesday's deal represents a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to expand an existing trail network, protect and restore endangered or threatened species such as the California tiger salamander and eventually create Deer Valley Regional Park, said Robert Doyle, the district's general manager. The purchase is "at least in the top three" in the park district's history, he said.

"It will allow us to create a whole new park. Plus, it ties in with the other land acquisitions we've made in East Contra Costa to create a huge wildlife corridor," said district board director Ted Radke.

The district, which is teaming with the East Contra Costa County Habitat Conservancy on the purchase, will start the yearlong escrow process with a $500,000 initial payment. It also allocated about $23,000 for the installation of gates, fencing and signs around the property to keep it secure.

The acquisition does not include Roddy Ranch Golf Club, the personal 40 acres of Jack and Donna Roddy, and two other parcels totaling 240 acres inside the project boundary.

Park district acquisitions have increased in fast-growing East Contra Costa since voter approval in 2008 of a $500 million bond measure for land preservation,¿ including the 220-acre Fox Ridge Manor property and adjacent 21-acre Fan property. Several other parcels that connect those properties to Roddy Ranch were purchased by the Contra Costa Water District as mitigation for its expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir.

With Roddy Ranch in the fold, a near-continuous buffer of undeveloped land would be formed from Black Diamond Mines Regional Park to Marsh Creek State Park south of Brentwood. Much of the land around Mount Diablo now will also be open space.

"It's an incredibly important piece of land. We wholeheartedly support (Roddy Ranch) being at the heart of this new preserve," said Scott Hein, president of conservation group Save Mount Diablo.

Federal grants from the California Wildlife Conservation Board and a private foundation are expected to cover the bulk of the purchase cost. The district will prepare plans for the land during the escrow process. Future amenities could include a more robust trail system for bicyclists and horseback riding, creation of wetland habitats and day camps, Doyle said. The property will be put into a "land bank" until the district's operational budget improves and it can establish a regional park, Doyle said.

Roddy, who helped put the deal together after the district identified the land as a potential regional park, said he is an "agriculturalist" and expressed his pleasure that he would be able "to leave that ranch the way he found it."

Roddy, who grew up ranching on his family farm in San Jose, purchased the land after flying over the grassy site in 1976 and finding it ideal for raising cattle. But as ranching became less viable and finances tightened, he partnered in the late 1990s with a deep-pocketed investor seeking to build.

The plans always centered on making the 656 acres of Roddy Ranch land inside Antioch a community with custom-designed homes. The remaining county land has been set aside for grazing and recreational purposes.

Roddy, 75, a self-described "rancher, not a developer," found himself thrust into the middle of building plans over the years.

In 2000, county supervisors moved Roddy Ranch outside the city's urban limit line, restricting development to existing neighborhoods. The decision stripped the land of development potential.

Antioch voters approved their own boundary five years later, which included a significant piece of Roddy Ranch and allowed for housing development.

But Roddy Ranch developers fell into financial trouble in 2009, defaulting on a $36 million loan.

Just last fall, a new developer group that included Roddy submitted similar building plans. The park district and other environmental groups have expressed interest in preserving the land for some time. The idea resurfaced over the past few months, and talks intensified in April.

"The recession definitely made a difference. The anticipation was that other projects would be completed a lot sooner," Doyle said.

The Roddy Ranch partnership received higher offers for the property, which is selling for its fair market appraised value under the deal, but with the park district, it "had the assurance of knowing" it would be paid, Doyle said.

"It's a sure thing. There are no strings or appraisals or permits," he said.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.

RODDY RANCH TIMELINE:
1976: Jack Roddy buys 2,156 acres southeast of Antioch.
1996-97: Faced with foreclosure, Roddy forms a partnership with Wayne Pierce, who invests cash and arranges loans. Pierce owns 80 percent of the new company, and Roddy owns 20 percent.
1998: Partners sign a deal with broker David Fitzgerald to finance a golf course and 1,000 luxury homes on the property.
1999-2000: Fitzgerald sells $35 million in municipal bonds to finance the project. Investors will be repaid with proceeds from home sales.
2000: Contra Costa County shrinks the urban limit line, which places a large portion of the ranch off-limits to housing.
March 2001: Officials revoke Fitzgerald's securities and broker licenses.
April 2001: Ranch defaults on bond payments.
July 2002: Ranch files for bankruptcy.
August 2003: At the request of creditors, a judge appoints a trustee to take over Roddy Ranch.
May 3, 2004: Richland Communities offers $31 million for the ranch in a courtroom auction.
June 30, 2004: Richland fails to close escrow for undisclosed reasons.
January 2005: A consortium of owners -- Black Mountain Development of Pleasanton, Castle Companies of San Ramon and Pacific Coast Capital Partners of Sacramento -- forms Roddy Ranch PBC and buys the property out of bankruptcy.
November 2005: Antioch voters approve Measure K, which sets the city's urban limit line to include Roddy Ranch.
November 2006: Roddy Ranch is annexed into Antioch by the county land formation commission, allowing for the use of city services such as police, fire, sewer and water.
January 2009: Antioch releases draft environmental impact report.
July 2009: Ownership group Roddy Ranch PBC defaults on property.
January 2010: Roddy Ranch property purchased by GKK Roddy Ranch Owner LP at a trustee sale.
August 2012: Antioch releases recirculated draft environmental impact review.
June 18, 2013: East Bay Regional Park District purchases Roddy Ranch's 1,885 acres for $14.24 million.