Almanac

News - January 9, 2013

Portola Valley: Home-improvement conversations are old hat to new commissioner

by Dave Boyce

Home improvement ideas can run from the plain to the magnificent, from rehabbing a bathroom to a building a mansion that pushes the envelopes set by the general plan and residential design guidelines, pushing that elicits push-back from officials charged with enforcing that plan and those guidelines.

In Portola Valley, resident Dave Ross sought such an official position, one where he might have to do some pushing back, and he got the job. The Town Council in November appointed Mr. Ross to a four-year term on the town's five-member Architectural & Site Control Commission.

The ASCC advises the Planning Commission and the Town Council — all volunteer panels — on significant remodeling and building projects in town. The ASCC's mission is to preserve the town's "visual character," its land values and investments, public safety, and the general welfare by preventing the erection of "unsightly or obnoxious" structures, indiscriminate clearing of land and destruction of vegetation, according to town code.

Mr. Ross, 57, has 35 years of experience in the construction business, is a certified mediator and expert witness on construction issues, and spent four years on the Architecture Review Board in Palo Alto, he said in his interview with the council. He is married to Nancy Powell, a former prosecutor in Santa Clara County, and the couple live on Canyon Drive and have been Portola Valley residents for 10 years. Mr. Ross's education includes four years at Stanford University concentrating on mathematics and economics, and later on computer science and statistics.

A decision to volunteer for something civic minded may have been inevitable. "I feel much more a part of a community if I'm participating in it instead of just (being) a visitor," Mr. Ross said in an interview. "It's kind of a natural path to feeling more at home in a place. I've got kind of a mental barrier against commenting on something that I'm not willing to participate in."

"Community volunteerism is kind of the highest and best form of government," he added. People who set aside time and their expertise to participate in civic affairs are "the fundamental building blocks of democracy."

Being a referee

For the ASCC, it's about design, including site design, architectural design, and landscaping design. The priorities, according to the general plan, are to conserve the town's "rural" quality and to see that human activity — building a home, for example — is "subordinate" to natural land forms and vegetation.

When the interests of the community vary from the hopes and dreams of an individual planning a home in Portola Valley, it's the job of the ASCC to find a way forward. Mr. Ross said he will take pains to appreciate the view from the applicant's position.

"It's fairly natural for applicants to pay more attention to their personal interests," he said. The mindset, "What I'm doing here is great and will be a great addition to the community," may seem right to the applicant, he added, but what if a neighbor wanted to do the same thing? The ASCC is there to provide a reality check when interests clash, he said.

Applicants, Mr. Ross noted, may develop a sense that the ASCC's design goals are more important to the process than those of architects and applicants. Does that happen? "I don't have enough direct experience with the ASCC myself to judge that. It's one of the things I'm going to be paying attention to as I get my feet wet," he said. "I think it's very difficult for public bodies to know when they've crossed that line."

The ASCC wants to protect Portola Valley from badly constructed projects, he said. We're here to promote good and thoughtful interaction between the built environment and the natural environment, he added.

Architects have issues, too, Mr. Ross said, summing it up in a sentence: "I lose money on projects in Portola Valley because I can never quite explain to the client why it takes so many meetings or why we have had to revise stuff." An applicant's budget can be strained by revisions, some of which the ASCC makes necessary. "I think professional designers appreciate that phenomenon better than the project owners do, and that can make life difficult for the applicants," he said. "It's a tricky position for the architect."

The ASCC can choose to insert itself when interests clash by bringing up options for the applicant, Mr. Ross said. "It's hard for a panel to (acknowledge) budget constraints." It's not the ASCC's mission to help people save money, but one worthy goal is predictability, he added.

Rurality and farming

In a Web search for images triggered by the word "rural," virtually all 420 images shown on the first page were of agricultural scenes.

"Compared to San Francisco, Portola Valley is rural," Mr. Ross said, but what Portola Valley actually preserves are elements of "rural character," by which he said he meant open spaces, horses, chickens and a natural landscape.

Nicholas Targ, a new member of the Planning Commission, has made a distinction between aesthetic rural and working rural. Asked to comment, Mr. Ross noted that a "strong tension" between those two ideas can develop in a town like Portola Valley.

Some vegetable farming and a vineyard are proposed for part of the field at 555 Portola Road, a space treasured by some residents for its aesthetically rural scenic qualities. A "boutique vegetable farm ... for some people, might violate the rural character of Portola Valley," Mr. Ross said, but he does not count himself among them. "It's a perfect fit," he said. "That's what happens in a rural community, is farming."

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