Almanac

Viewpoint - March 6, 2013

Editorial: Agriculture gets a bad rap in Portola Valley

In a town that frequently refers to itself as a rural community, Portola Valley is having trouble deciding whether the owners of a Portola Road property can, on seven acres, grow grapes and other fruit and some row crops that, arguably, would be intermittently discernible from the road.

The field is a "meadow preserve" bordered on two sides by working agriculture: orchards to the north and hidden vineyards to the west. Its status in the general plan as a "preserve" stems from its pastoral beauty and its position at the bottom of Windy Hill, the 1,900-foot peak that rises through an open-space preserve to Skyline Boulevard. This vista in the town's "scenic corridor" is treasured by town residents, and for some, any attempt to interrupt it, even with a few acres of agriculture, is not acceptable.

In the face of residents who consider the field sacrosanct, the Planning Commission OK'd a barn and three acres of vegetables and fruit trees on seven acres at the northern end of the field, but excluded a four-acre vineyard from that scenario. It clashed with the "purpose and intent" of the town's general plan, a commission majority said.

Dr. Kirk Neely, who owns the field with his wife Holly Myers, has said that the vineyard is vital to financing meadow operations. Town officials have commended the couple on their good stewardship of the land. The proposal is five years old at least. Any decision on the vineyard is a delicate matter, one that likely will require a public hearing.

When a decision is made, it could turn on the definition of "meadow preserve" and/or whether it remains a preserve and in a class by itself. Officials could reconsider in light of the agricultural neighbor to the north, the Jelich Ranch.

We understand why some residents fear a compromise that could affect a precious view looking up to spectacular Windy Hill. But we wonder if they are giving a thought to the town's long agricultural heritage, including livestock ranches, farms and many orchards, including those of Walter Jelich, who grew and sold apples, apricots and figs along Portola Road for years. His sales barn still stands along the road not far from this field.

This is a "rural" heritage and the town should celebrate it, not turn its back on it. The seven-acre property is shielded from Portola Road by stands of trees, so in most cases the agriculture will hardly be seen by passersby. But even if they do see it, what harm can come from a glance at a small vineyard, some row crops and a few fruit trees around an elegant barn? If there are fences to protect the crops, they should be discreet.

We know that Portola Valley residents have done more than most communities to develop according to green environmental guidelines and have set aside tax funds to purchase open space. But there's more to being green. Advances in self-sustaining practices — growing your own vegetables, for example — should be the next step.

This proposal is hardly a dangerous precedent and should be approved. Farming this parcel does not make Portola Valley an "agriculture community," as some have charged, but it does support sustainability and shows that the town still remembers its roots.

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