Bay Area Farmer Spurns Developers, Donates Land to Public Parks
Walter Cottle Lester could have made millions. Instead, he created something priceless.
San Jose is a humming tech-powered city about an hour south of San Francisco. But when 88-year-old Walter Cottle Lester was growing up on his grandfather's 287-acre farm in South San Jose, it was one of hundreds that stretched from one end of Santa Clara County to the other. Tomatoes, strawberries and corn still grow there, sold at roadside stands with hand-lettered signs, but these days this is the exception, not the rule.
According to the American Farmland Trust, development and urban sprawl gobbled up 23 million acres of farm and ranch land between 1982 and 2007. Almost all of the produce, dairy and poultry farms in this country are close enough to urban centers to be vulnerable to sprawl. Farmers sometimes sell the development rights to some of their land just to finance a new milking parlor, and voila: yet another Target, and far fewer fresh strawberries.
Lester's land was first bought in 1864 by his great-grandfather, Edward Cottle, and was handed down through the generations until it reached Lester and his sister, who died a few years ago. Without a family of his own, he has donated the land to the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department and the California State Parks department.
It didn't have to go that way. According to a recent story, over the years the siblings were offered millions to sell the land to developers. And when he finally became the sole owner of the land, Lester actually owed millions in estate taxes. He might have had no choice but to sell — but the state parks department found the cash to cover the taxes so he could turn around and give that land, free and clear, to the parks department.
The result? Instead of paving paradise to put up a parking lot, most of the land will remain a working farm, leased to farmers and managed by the county, with the addition of trails, picnic areas, a working educational farm, a community garden, areas where 4-H members can raise animals, a research facility for the University of California and various other amazing projects. The whole kit and caboodle will be named Martial Cottle Park, for Lester's grandfather, and it is slated to open in 2014.
Lester is one of the good guys. Because of his vision and desire to preserve a little green corner of Silicon Valley, the whole valley is richer.