The outlines were sketched in a little more sharply at a recent meeting of the Portola Valley Planning Commission on what is looking increasingly like a split decision on November 20, but one that will allow the owners of a much admired "meadow preserve" at 555 Portola Road to put in a vineyard of up to 5.5 acres.
Ownership of the 24-acre field is divided. Dr. Kirk Neely and Holly Myers own the northern 17 acres as part of the couple's 229-acre property, and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District owns the other seven. Grasses cover all of it and it is not uncommon to see deer grazing.
When viewed from Portola Road, the field appears to be an extension of the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve that rises spectacularly behind it. The town's general plan refers to it as a "meadow preserve" that is "visually important to the entire quality of the valley. This preserve should be kept in a natural condition and the existing agricultural character preserved."
What is meant by "natural condition" and "existing agricultural character"? What is a meadow preserve? On questions such as these has this matter turned since the fall of 2009, when Dr. Neely and Ms. Myers first applied for a conditional use permit to begin small-scale farming of fruits, vegetables and hay on between 10 and 11 acres of it.
The proposal was always controversial. The initial plans included a barn-like storage building and fences to protect the crops. The vineyard was added later, but is necessary to make the agricultural operation pay for itself, Dr. Neely has said.
The couple already have a winery and 13 acres of grapes under cultivation, according to a staff report, but they cannot be seen from the road. Grapes from the new vineyard would be trucked to the winery, the report said.
The commissioners and members of the public have, over the years, expressed high regard for the couple's stewardship of their land.
The Oct. 16 meeting included an analysis of how to best protect the field's character: through a conditional use permit or requiring a conservation easement. Either can be strongly worded, Town Planner Tom Vlasic said, and new uses would require formal amendments.
Former mayor Jon Silver called a vineyard inconsistent with the field's agricultural character and requested the commission opt for an easement.
Linda Elkind, a former commissioner, warned the panel of sowing seeds that could redefine meadows and open spaces. "Meadowland is not monoculture," she said. "You're laying out a very significant path."
"What are we going to use (a conservation easement) for if we're not going to protect our last meadow?" resident Beverly Lipman asked.
Resident Danna Breen, a member of the Architectural and Site Control Commission, said she was speaking for herself in support of the vineyard as a "reasonable use" of the land. "I find it exciting for our community to grow food. It makes us self-sustaining," she said. "I would like to see this approved without a conservation easement. I think it would be a wonderful project. I'd like to see it move on now."
A vote is set for Nov. 20; commissioners Nate McKitterick, Arthur "Chip" McIntosh and Nicholas Targ sounded supportive of the vineyard while commissioners Denise Gilbert and Alex van Feldt sounded opposed.
"I truly believe that it's designated a meadow preserve for a reason and vineyards are not a meadow preserve," Ms. Gilbert said. "If we go ahead and give them a vineyard, they're going to come back again. ... In five or 10 years, our meadow is going to be down to the Midpeninsula part of it."
Ms. Von Feldt agreed, adding that row crops and fences are not indicative of a meadow. "I feel like a meadow preserve is a meadow preserve," she said. "This is still sacred as a meadow ... I think it should stay that way."
"The agricultural history of the town is a long one, including the growing of grapes for wine," said Mr. Targ.
Mr. McKitterick said he supported "the thrust" of the proposal and noted that past uses of the field have rendered it no longer in a natural condition.
Mr. McIntosh said he thought the language of the general plan can be read as allowing a vineyard. "I think there's too much sentiment behind keeping it as a hayfield," he added. "I think that vineyards are attractive, interesting and historical and it fits with that location."