In Portola Valley, home town to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and endowed with open space and opportunities to own horses, goats and chickens (and roosters here and there), the words "rural character" and "sustainability," meaning a preference for environmentally sensitive living, are considered vital to the town's identity.
The word "rural" appears 40 times in Portola Valley's general plan, including in a 10-point list defining rural quality. While officials in the past have sometimes put air quotes around this word, that seems unlikely now. The meaning of "rural" has become a matter of significance in an evolving community discussion over the fate of a 20-acre open field at 555 Portola Road.
The general plan describes the field as a "meadow preserve" within the town's scenic corridor that "should be kept in a natural condition and the existing agricultural character preserved." Passersby and Westridge neighborhood residents can look across 100 yards of deep grass, often grazed by deer, and follow the earth tones up over ridges to the 1,900-foot peak of Windy Hill, an open space preserve.
This field also happens to be private, part of 229 acres owned by Dr. Kirk Neely and Holly Myers. The couple have been trying for about five years to get a permit to use seven acres at the least visible end of the field for a barn, some rows of vegetables, some fruit trees and a vineyard. The Planning Commission approved most of the proposal in January 2012, but a 3-2 majority rejected the vineyard on the grounds that it conflicts with the "general purpose and intent" of the general plan, in the words of Commissioner (and now chair) Alexandra Von Feldt.
Without the vineyard, Dr. Neely has said, the project is not economically viable. Since that decision, the couple have continued to press their case, and the Planning Commission has lost one member of the majority that rejected the vineyard. In what may have been an inadvertent framing of the debate, the new commissioner, Nicholas Targ, recently described two kinds of rural: aesthetic and working/agricultural.
The council and the Planning Commission met on Feb. 13 for a 90-minute study session to consider options for the "meadow preserve," including taking a closer look at the language in the general plan.
Comment on the meadow
"We need to acknowledge that Dr. Neely has been a really good steward of this piece of property," Mayor John Richards said. Maintaining the meadow does require economic activity, and "agriculture makes a lot of sense in a sustainable way," he added. "A vineyard might be acceptable in part of the area."
Councilwoman Ann Wengert agreed, as did Mr. Targ. "It seems to me," he added, "that 'agricultural character' encompasses an abundance of agricultural opportunities." Modern farming, he said, is "highly sustainable" and could provide the town with a greater understanding of the value of agriculture.
Defenders of aesthetic rural resisted. "It is important to understand the traditions of this town and protect the largely open character of this meadow," former mayor Jon Silver said. "If we're going to change that, it requires the widest, broadest participation of the town."
"This isn't an agricultural community," resident Tom Kelley said. "This is a natural community. If you want to see an agricultural community, take (state Highway) 99 and go to Fresno. We're more horse people than we are agricultural people."
"I'm forever grateful for this view of open space," said resident Julia Shepardson. "I think that agriculture of any form is impactful. (The meadow) is the soul of Portola Valley. Barns, delivery trucks, agricultural plants ruin ecology. I really hope that we, as a community, can think of ourselves as trustees."
"When you buy a preserve, you own a preserve. It's not a blank slate," Ms. Shepardson continued. "The town is allowing him to do more than have a meadow." The language in the general plan should "be as inflexible as possible," she said. "Historic preservation by its nature kind of holds things as they were."
"I find myself in the public spotlight. I don't really want it or like it," Dr. Neely said, adding that he prefers collaboration rather then antagonism and the "trench warfare" over what words mean. "A 20-acre parcel remains a museum of Portola Valley's past for the benefit of passersby," he said. "That really has to be weighed against fairness. ... We don't think it's a desecration to use the meadow for a limited amount of agriculture."
The Planning Commission's 2012 decision "was not a compromise but a gutting of the proposal," he said. "What we were left with was hobby agriculture."
The vineyard could go somewhere else, vineyards exist elsewhere on the property, and the issue needs a public hearing, Planning Commissioner Denise Gibson said, in an echo of former mayor Silver's comments.