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Walter Cottle Lester, 88; preservationist who didn’t sell out in Silicon Valley

Mr. Lester’s 300 acres on the southern side of San Jose, Calif., will be preserved as a “public historical park.”

Santa Clara County Parks

Mr. Lester’s 300 acres on the southern side of San Jose, Calif., will be preserved as a “public historical park.”

NEW YORK — Walter Cottle Lester could have been another Silicon Valley millionaire. He was in the right place at the right time with something highly marketable. Potential investors swarmed. How much would it take, they asked, $100 million? $500 million?

It turned out that Mr. Lester had a different kind of investment in mind.

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He owned 300 acres on the southern side of San Jose, one of the last large expanses of farmland in a dense and very expensive real estate market. Instead of selling to a developer who would build yet another housing subdivision for high-tech workers, Mr. Lester held out for a low-tech dream: He wanted the land to stay the way it was, preserved as farmland and open space, with arching old oaks and broad views of the surrounding mountains, not just strip malls.

On Feb. 1, the day after Mr. Lester died at age 88 in San Jose, that vision began coming to fruition: The first phase of Martial Cottle Park, named for Mr. Lester’s grandfather and long in the planning, opened to the public in the form of a 4-mile trail on the property.

The project will eventually include a visitors’ center, picnic areas, historical farming exhibitions, and the leasing of some of the land for farming, but, at Mr. Lester’s insistence, no ball fields, swimming pools, or playgrounds. Santa Clara County will oversee the park, though part of it is owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. A county parks fund, approved by voters, will pay the $26 million in construction costs.

“This was his lifelong duty as he looked at it, to preserve it,” said David Giordano, who was Mr. Lester’s farm manager in recent years. “He said, ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody about selling. I never want to sell it.’ He never even considered it.”

Silicon Valley has a topographical, as well as a technological identity. Much of it sprawls across the Santa Clara Valley. Once known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” the region was rich with fruit orchards and it remained highly productive into the 1960s. Mr. Lester’s great-grandfather, Edward Cottle, bought several hundred acres in 1864 and later divided his land between his sons, Warren and Martial.

Martial Cottle raised cattle and grew grains and hay on his land. His daughter, Ethel, married Henry Walter Lester, a prominent farmer who owned hundreds of acres of his own and for a time was the area’s largest prune grower. By the early 1940s, his son, Walter, was working on his family’s land. Although the family sold much of Henry Lester’s land, they decided decades ago to try to hold together the core acreage farmed by Martial Cottle.

There were plenty of offers, but Mr. Lester entertained none of them. He built a fence around his house. Then he built a second fence. “I wouldn’t call him a hermit,” Giordano said, “but he was maybe a borderline recluse.”

One of the structures being preserved as part of the park is the Victorian house where Mr. Lester died. It is also where he was born, on July 7, 1925, and where his grandfather lived and his mother, Ethel, was born in 1891.

Mr. Lester has no immediate survivors. He never married and did not have children. Neither did his only sibling, his sister, Edith. They lived together in the Cottle house. When Edith died, in 1999, Mr. Lester received a stunning estate tax bill, in the tens of millions of dollars. Planning for making the property into a park was underway, and the state helped pay part of the tax bill.

In 2003, Mr. Lester signed a grant deed formally transferring the property.

“No part of the property shall be used for high intensity, organized recreational uses such as athletic fields, playgrounds, tot lots, swimming pools, play courts, amusement rides, or similar uses, nor as a repository for historic structures that are relocated from other sites,” the deed reads in part.

“The property shall be used as a public historical park that informs and educates the public about the agricultural heritage of Santa Clara Valley, as exemplified by the Martial Cottle family, dating from the 1850s into the 20th century.”

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