Verbal sparks flew briefly Tuesday night at a Q-and-A forum for candidates running for Portola Valley Town Council.
The forum was organized by the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County. Four candidates are running for three open seats on the council.
The League's forum moderator, who has said she edits audience questions to remove editorializing, was asking the candidates to comment on a close and controversial decision by the council in May 2013. The council held a public hearing and voted 3-2 to overturn an earlier Planning Commission decision to allow artificial grass on a soccer-field-sized area enclosed by a new running track at Woodside Priory School.
Resident SallyAnn Reiss, a Priory parent and a leader of the effort to get artificial grass at the school, interrupted the moderator from the audience, demanding that she read the whole question.
"I will read the question, but I will say that I find it somewhat loaded," the moderator said in response. She then reread the question, asking for candidate comment and adding, "How do you justify ignoring property rights?"
(In the May decision on the Priory application, the council majority opposing the artificial grass were Mayor John Richards and council members Maryann Derwin and Jeff Aalfs. In the minority were council members Ann Wengert and Ted Driscoll.)
First up at the forum was candidate and challenger Craig Hughes, who is a member of the Architectural Site Control Commission that recommended against the artificial grass. "We felt that a living grass rather than a plastic grass was more in keeping with the town's general plan," he said.
Bud Eisberg, a challenger and a former member of the ASCC, noted that it was a difficult and emotionally fraught decision. But, he added, the field is neither open space nor wilderness; it's an athletic field. The decision should have stopped at the Planning Commission. "We can't go back and revisit every close decision the Planning Commission makes," Mr. Eisberg said.
"It gave me no pleasure," said Councilwoman Derwin, " to render a decision that made so many people unhappy." She said she could not find language in the sustainability chapter of the general plan that was compatible with an artificial grass surface. Besides, she added, the town founders placed high value on protecting the environment "for all to enjoy."
"I agree with Maryann," said Mayor Richards, who also voted with the majority. "Without a general plan, there wouldn't be any point in having Portola Valley. If it doesn't meet the requirements of the general plan, it doesn't pass."
Several questions asked the candidates how to improve communication with residents. These questions also had a controversial context: a decision in which the council almost bought a 1.6-acre former nursery at 900 Portola Road for some small number of homes affordable to people of moderate incomes.
State mandates require communities to make good-faith efforts to plan for such housing within their boundaries to address a statewide shortage of housing near places of employment.
The council backed away from buying the nursery property after a report from San Mateo County noted that the grounds had not been properly decontaminated of nursery chemicals. Residents, mainly from single-family homes on nearby Wyndham Drive, complained that the council had been secretive and that the process lacked transparency.
In response to the outcry, the council commissioned an ad hoc committee of residents that spent six months examining the question of affordable housing in town. The committee report included several suggestions for moving the town forward on this issue.
One question at the forum asked the candidates whether they would pledge to abide by the committee's recommendations and not purchase land for below market rate housing using public funds.
Ms. Derwin praised the report but defended the council's efforts and the process, under the guidance of now-retired town attorney Sandy Sloan. "We're the only community I know who actually took this very, very gnarly question on," Ms. Derwin said. "We listened to our town attorney," and avoided judicial rezoning and other sanctions were the town to be successfully sued by affordable housing advocacy groups.
A pledge is not possible right now because the process is still unfolding, said Mayor Richards. Some of the committee's recommendations "were excellent," he added. "I'm sure we'll be using some of them."
If the criteria in the report are complied with, there should be no problem, Mr. Eisberg said.
Mr. Hughes said he would agree to one pledge: to an open debate ahead of any decision.