Story by Dave Boyce and photos by Michelle Le
Maryann Moise Derwin
Arthur C. "Bud" Eisberg Jr.
Craig R. Hughes
F. John Richards
A residential community that is cohesive and vibrant may, over time, settle on a particular word or two to describe itself. In Portola Valley, one such word is "rural." The word appears 41 times in the general plan.
This town is just off an eight-lane freeway, about equidistant from San Francisco and San Jose, and home to many high-technology innovators, but it also sits against the wild and forested Santa Cruz mountains. It is about as rural as you can get without leaving Silicon Valley.
Town government has been instrumental in crafting regulations that promote environmental protection and construction that is subservient to the land.
In the November election, four candidates -- two incumbents and two challengers -- are running for three seats on the five-member Town Council. The Almanac began its interviews by asking the candidates for their takes on this word.
"If you drive through Portola Valley and compare it with driving through other towns on the Peninsula, you'll see how we're different," said Councilwoman Maryann Derwin.
"It doesn't look gentrified. It didn't (in 1970) and it doesn't now," said challenger Bud Eisberg.
It means natural and "as undisturbed as we can make it," said challenger Craig Hughes. "Not medieval rural England, but allowing people to live lives that make sense in the modern world."
Portola Valley used to be dirt roads, agriculture and grazing livestock, said Mayor John Richards, referring to his youth there. "We're maintaining the rural look, I think, as much as possible ... better than almost any town in the region."
On the importance of maintaining a rural lifestyle in Portola Valley, then, the candidates agree. What about other topics?
All of the candidates empathized with concern from local merchants' about food trucks moving in on their territory on occasion. Three candidates -- Mr. Eisberg did not have an opinion -- were open to the idea of a skateboard facility for teens, provided it is located so as not to be an annoyance to neighbors. And all the candidates spoke highly of volunteering to serve in a representative government.
As one of his priorities, Mr. Eisberg spoke in favor of a "less activist" government with a focus on safety, public works, fiscal responsibility, and "helping our schools where we can." The other three candidates spoke of keeping the town on the path it's been on for its first 50 years.
The Almanac asked the candidates if Portola Valley has a role in regional issues.
There are benefits to regionalism, said Ms. Derwin, the council member most active regionally. With her contacts, she brought together two congressional representatives to question the FAA recently about overflight noise from air traffic, she said, and arranged to squelch a proposal for a traffic light in Ladera.
Mr. Richards noted the importance of being at the table with respect to airplane noise, and cited the town's role in maintaining the health of the San Francisquito Creek watershed and open spaces for outdoor recreation.
The town is looked to by other towns for guidance with regard to green building, Mr. Hughes said. "We can lead by example, to some extent." Ms. Derwin, he added, is well connected regionally.
"I think we should focus our efforts in the region to things that affect Portola Valley," Mr. Eisberg said, "not things that we cannot control or have an effect on. We should have discussions with communities like ourselves."
The council was accused in 2012 of not being open about plans to buy a former nursery at 900 Portola Road. The transaction was part of the town's effort to address a state mandate that communities make good-faith efforts to plan for construction of homes affordable to people of low and moderate incomes to cope with a projected statewide housing shortage.
The effort was neither hidden nor open. State law allows councils to discuss prices and terms of real estate transactions in private. The nursery address appeared on the council's agenda for seven closed sessions between July 2009 and October 2010, all resulting in nothing to report to the public, according to the minutes archive. The council also met in urgent closed session in March 2011 -- after a deal to buy the nursery site fell through with Windmill School after 18 months of negotiations, property owner John Wu told the Almanac.
An Almanac story in April 2011 drew attention to the possibility of the council's interest in the property for affordable housing. Town officials announced this intention in June 2012, and one month later conducted a community meeting to begin a "robust process" to include the sale of two town-owned properties and plans to use the proceeds to buy 900 Portola Road. Designs for the site would not be available, they said, because it was unclear how many houses a developer would have to build to make a profit.
Neither Mr. Hughes nor Mr. Eisberg were involved in all that, but both said they would focus on more communication with the public should they be elected. (Mr. Hughes said he has attended three council meetings since announcing his candidacy in August; Mr. Eisberg has followed the proceedings by reading the agendas and minutes online, he said.)
The "unknown density" at 900 Portola Road was a problem, said Mr. Eisberg, who lives in the immediate neighborhood. "A lot of it boiled down to 'nobody likes surprises,'" he said, adding that he would not have objected to four homes. "Windmill School (a private preschool that was trying to buy the site) showed site plans and elevations and asked for our support," he said. "I don't think every neighborhood would have supported a school next door."
Mr. Hughes said the council could have conferred with Windmill, and could have erred more on the side of openness. "There's a difference between the legal requirements (regarding prices and terms of real estate transactions) and the need to let people know what's going on," he said. The state's open-meeting law "does not restrict one-way communication," he said.
Mr. Hughes said he hopes to explore whether Portola Valley is complying with the intentions of affordable housing mandates. "I think it's a discussion we should have," he said.
"If I were to do (the affordable housing initiative) all over again, I would have knocked on doors," said Ms. Derwin, who was mayor in 2012. "I think we should have talked to the neighbors." Neighboring communities are not making similar efforts to actually build the housing, she noted. "I think among affluent communities, we are a little better than (others). We have a social conscience."
Mr. Richards, who as mayor in 2013 appointed an ad hoc committee to look into affordable housing in town, described it as "really important for the social diversity of the town" and something that would make a "more interesting" town. "I can't help but think we're excluding those people now," he added.
● Incumbent Maryann Moise Derwin, 60, has volunteered for many positions in San Mateo County, including the boards of the City/County Association of Governments, the affordable-housing authority, the county library and the poet laureate task force. She's been on the council for eight years, serves on a committee with Woodside on protection against wildfire, and was an active volunteer in Portola Valley schools.
● Challenger Arthur C. "Bud" Eisberg Jr., 69, is a retired airline pilot with more than 20 years of volunteer service to the town, including about 10 years on the Architectural and Site Control Commission as well as committees concerned with public works, affordable housing and creek restoration at Town Center. His other interests as a volunteer include sports, scouting and model airplane Flight Night at Town Center. Michelle Le/The Almanac
● Challenger Craig R. Hughes, 39, is an entrepreneur and executive and founder of five software companies, a four-year member of the Architectural and Site Control Commission, and a parent of two children in Portola Valley schools. He is affiliated with the symbolic systems program at Stanford University. Michelle Le/The Almanac
● Incumbent F. John Richards, 63, is an architect and came to Portola Valley as a kindergartner. He volunteered for the Peace Corps and served in Venezuela and Nicaragua for two years. In his four years on the council, he was involved in bringing to town summer concerts, the farmers' market, new green building standards and engagement on the issue of affordable housing. Michelle Le/The Almanac