Almanac

News - June 30, 2010

Passing of the torch in Portola Valley

by Dave Boyce

If the original 19th-century landowner of what is now Portola Valley were to find himself reconstituted and sitting on a horse where Alpine and Portola roads meet, he would have no trouble recognizing the skyline to the west and finding a trail to the top of Windy Hill for a look around.

Though it is now an incorporated town of 4,700, that this valley retains its wooded skyline and wooded hillsides below is a part of the legacy of George Mader, president of Menlo Park-based Spangle Associates and the town's planner for 45 years.

Mr. Mader announced his semi-retirement at the June 23 Town Council meeting before colleagues and friends. Following a brief ceremony in Mr. Mader's honor, the council appointed Tom Vlasic, Mr. Mader's assistant for 38 years, as the new town planner.

Mr. Mader became a specialist in the development of geologically hazardous and steep terrain, of which Portola Valley has plenty. It sits against the Santa Cruz mountains and a major earthquake fault bisects the town.

In preserving the landscape, Mr. Mader was fulfilling the wishes of a town incorporated specifically to prevent over-development. The town's success, Mr. Mader noted in his remarks, was the work of noted individuals, "a forward-thinking community," and land purchases by the Midpeninsula Open Space District.

Mr. Mader's pioneering work in finding ways to develop a community in areas of hazardous geology has spread to six continents, he and others have said. Mr. Mader also helped develop a degree program in environmental earth science at Stanford University, where he taught for 30 years.

Town Councilman Ted Driscoll, who has a doctorate in earth science, recalled traveling to Japan and a casual conversation on the plane with a Japanese passenger that revealed a mutual interest in town planning amid hazardous geology and a recognition of Mr. Mader's prominence in that field.

In Mr. Driscoll's account, the passenger at one point turned to his fellow travelers to explain who he and Mr. Driscoll were discussing. "Mader-san, Mader-san," the passenger said. "I discovered," Mr. Driscoll recalled, "that George Mader's reputation was already on the other side of the Pacific."

In his remarks, Mr. Mader said he'd been privileged to consult in China, Mexico, Ecuador, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Algeria and Turkey. He also chairs GeoHazards International, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit with a worldwide mission of educating vulnerable communities on how to survive large earthquakes.

Mr. Mader has held prominent positions with the California Seismic Safety Commission, the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

He lives in Ladera with his wife Marjorie Mader, a senior Almanac correspondent. The couple have three children.

A geologist's non-geologist

If a town is divided by the notorious San Andreas fault, and one side of it rests on steep and historically unstable base rock, it helps if somebody in the planning department knows something about geology.

Mr. Mader has been that somebody. "George grasped all this stuff early on," said Sheldon Breiner, a geophysicist who chairs the Geologic Safety Committee. "He understood it and translated it to rules and policies. As a non-geologist, he sure grabbed a hold of these things very well."

"He knew how to capture the flavor of the town as a rural area near an urban center and still keep its character," Mr. Breiner added. "George is the fellow that holds the key. I don't know anyone else who comes close."

Danna Breen, an Architecture and Site Control commissioner, said of Mr. Mader: "He's always so measured and reasonable and thoughtful. I have huge respect for him."

Linda Elkind, a former Planning Commissioner, called Mr. Mader wise. "I think he's also shown great leadership in sensing and anticipating people's reactions," she said. "This was the case when I was very eager to adopt standards to protect the creek corridor. George said, 'Lets take this slow. Let's give lots of opportunity for site visits.'" It made it a much better process and I learned a lot from it."

"Perhaps no one understand Portola Valley as well as George Mader," town historian Nancy Lund has said. "And perhaps no one is more responsible for the way the town has emerged as a leader in environmental preservation and in reducing geologic risk for residents."

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