PLEASANTON -- A park to protect wildland ridges above the area's freeways, office parks and housing is growing fast thanks to an East Bay Regional Park District shopping spree.

Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park has grown from 5,000 acres to 8,800 acres in the last six years, making it one of the district's fastest growing and largest parks. It is second only to Ohlone Regional Wilderness, at 9,700 acres.

And a recent purchase option will push the ridge park to beyond 9,000 acres, or 14 square miles -- making it roughly a third the size of San Francisco. The park has abundant wildlife, oak-filled canyons, grasslands and the Pleasanton and Sunol ridges. Its hikers can savor views from the bay to San Joaquin County and beyond to the Sierra.

The land purchases have been fueled by lagging real estate prices and the district's ready cash, thanks to voter approval of a massive 2008 parks bond measure.

But the big expansion is about more than just one park, officials say.

The 8-mile long Pleasanton Ridge park has become the hub of an emerging network of regional parks and open spaces near Dublin, Pleasanton, Sunol, Castro Valley, Hayward and Fremont.

"Things are coming together faster than we expected for our vision of parks in this area," said Bob Doyle, district general manger. "We consider this a major conservation success story in protecting wildlife habitat, watershed lands and places for public recreation."

The Pleasanton park is popular with hikers, bikers and dog walkers.


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Connecting trails

The district plans connecting trails, including to Dublin Hills, and Garin and Dry Creek parks near Hayward, Sunol Wilderness, and the Vargas Plateau and Mission Peak parks near Fremont.

At the heart of the expansion is Pleasanton Ridge, for which the district has spent $43.4 million to buy land since the 1980s.

On a driving tour, Doyle pointed out the contrast between the Pleasanton park's high wilderness -- where eagles and hawks soar -- and booming cities and freeways below.

"It is a beautiful wilderness park and it's huge," he said. "You can be in downtown Sunol and get on a trail and walk all the way to Devaney Canyon near (Interstate) 580."

As he drove on dirt roads in the park, a prairie falcon swooped past his vehicle, and a golden eagle later soared above it. Frogs croaked in a pond near remnants of an old ranch house.

The park has been a long time in coming.

A 1960s federal study considered an East Bay ridgelands park, including Pleasanton Ridge, but the plan went nowhere for lack of money.

In the 1980s, a developer created the spark for the park when new homes and a golf course were proposed on Pleasanton Ridge. Angry Alameda County voters rejected that plan in 1983. By 1988, the park district stepped in to buy 1,700 acres to start the park.

Since 2007, the district has spent nearly $16.8 million on three purchases that dramatically bumped up the park's size. District officials said they were ready to buy because land prices were down, and the district had cash from a $500 million bond measure.

Others chipped in money. The Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation gave $2 million for two of three recent Pleasanton Ridge purchases. A similar amount was given by an Alameda County panel that oversees a surcharge collected for county landfill use.

Not everyone is pleased by the park expansions, though.

"They should stop buying land until they have opened up all the land they have so the public can enjoy it," said Ken Hambrick, chairman of the Alliance of Contra Costa Taxpayers. "They have gone land crazy."

Working on access

About half of the Pleasanton park is now open to the public with trails and access points. District officials say some of the lands would have been lost to development had the district waited.

"The public has sent us a message to buy land, and provide access to them when we can," said Ayn Weiskamp, a park board member from Livermore. She and other members have been frustrated because Pleasanton Ridge has just one major entrance and parking lot.

But in its latest Pleasanton Ridge expansion, the park board is landing a golden opportunity for improved access. Last week, the board agreed to a $2.2 million, six-month option to buy 232 acres for the ridge park, near Bernal Road and Foothill Boulevard.

It's adjacent to Pleasanton's Alviso Adobe Park, which has parking that might provide access to ridge park visitors.

"This is a win-win situation for opening up our land," said Bob Nisbet, the district's assistant general manager for acquisition. "It's not enough to buy park land. We have to make it accessible to the public."

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267.