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Patch Primer: Horse Hill

More than 20 years after a feverish effort to preserve them, the rolling hills above Alto are part of Mill Valley's rich history.

Like thousands of commuters, I've driven by Horse Hill every day for years, knowing that the rolling hills hovering above the Alto neighborhood were protected open space and that the horses had plenty of room to roam away from the smells and sounds of Hwy. 101. But like most stories in Mill Valley, there's much more history and drama behind it than meets the eye.

I had the opportunity to work for a day at the Horse Hill Open Space Preserve Tuesday as part of Patch's Give5 program, where editors volunteer in the communities they cover a few times a year. I helped Greg Reza, the Volunteer Program Coordinator for the Marin County Parks and Open Space District, and Robert Eichstaedt of the Alto Bowl Horseowners Association, remove invasive plants like French and scotch broom, and clean up native plantings made years ago by removing the restoration hardware around them.

Both men taught me quite a bit about the history of the land's preservation and the need to diligently manage the land to ward off invasive plants and avoid wildfires.

The efforts to preserve the approximately 35 acres of Horse Hill date back to 1961, when local resident Alina McClain fought a proposal to build 1,200 homes on the land. The standoff between developers and preservationists ebbed and flowed over the years, and rose to a fever pitch in December 1988, when the Mill Valley City Council made preservation of Horse Hill a priority. Six months later, the city filed an eminent domain lawsuit against landowners Frank and Edward Huang of Taiwan.

A jury set the price of the land at $2.4 million. The city set aside $1.6 million from Prop. 70, the huge open space preservation bond issue passed by voters in 1988. Although the effort landed grants and other sources of funds, the Save Horse Hill committee still had to come up with more than $600,000 to pay for the acquisition. A feverish fundraising effort ensued, featuring concert benefits, art exhibits and letter-writing campaigns, and the money was raised.

The city acquired the land in 1990, and donated it two years later to the Marin County Parks and Open Space District, permanently preserving it as open space. What followed was a balancing act between the district, which manages the land, and the nonprofit Alto Bowl Horseowners' Association, which represents the horse owners who have used the land since 1971 and manages the horse-related infrastructure at the base of the hill.

Each of the 12 horses that live on the hill (14 is the limit, per the group's grazing agreement with the district) are privately owned, and each owner pays a pasture boarding fee of $90 per month. The association paid for the construction of the shelters, corrals, hitch rails, and manure bunker, and is responsible for all fences and horse-related improvements. The group is entirely staffed by volunteers.

Horse Hill hosts a number of educational programs throughout the school year and summer, from Navigating Educational Trails (NET), a Mill Valley Middle School program in 2006-2007 that had students working and learning on Horse Hill throughout the school year, to after-school programs from outfits like GreenPlay.

The district and the horseowners association will host their annual Horse Hill cleanup and pizza party on Nov. 13 at 9am. Naturalist David Herlocker will talk about the evolution of horses, from the wild animals of the Pleistocene to the pampered thoroughbreds of today.

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