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June 02, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Portola Valley council gets an earful on Town Center redesign Portola Valley council gets an earful on Town Center redesign (June 02, 2004)

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

No one said the community project to redesign the Portola Valley Town Center complex of buildings was going to be easy, and after the Town Council meeting last week, who would want to?

The May 26 meeting was billed as an opportunity for comment by members of the Town Center Citizens Advisory Committee on what activities are right for the 11.2-acre park-like site, such as a library, a soccer field and a multi-use room. But as often as not, the meeting became a venue for the airing of grievances.

Some residents argued about the value of a town-wide survey with a response rate of 9 percent. "This seems to be a self-selecting poll" and unrepresentative, said Lloyd Chambers.

Others were bitter because the council had pre-loaded the survey to require an administration building and equipment maintenance facility. Though these uses have been located at Town Center for some 30 years, replacing them would threaten the center's image, some residents said.

"I have a vision for the 11-acre campus," said Bernie Bayuk. "It can be unique. ... The business of the town shouldn't be here. This is a cultural campus."

This statement was met with applause, led by Mayor George Comstock, who later noted 11 reasons for keeping administrative and maintenance functions at Town Center, including problems with separate locations, higher costs, and a perceived slight against the town staff. Other council members also supported the location.

In an interview, Mr. Bayuk said the mayor's reasoning changed his mind. "There is a justified case for bringing (the business functions) here," Mr. Bayuk said.


A case was made for moving the Windmill School, now on Alpine Road, to the Town Center. The one-room pre-school turns away about 50 families a year, said Carolyn Carhart-Quevada, a member of the school's board of directors.

The new location would insulate Windmill from rent increases and allow enrollment to double to about 120 children. The school wants two bare-bones classrooms, Ms. Carhart-Quevada said, to which the school would add fixtures and furniture.

Windmill would contribute between $50,000 and $100,000 to the effort and pay about $30,000 annually to the town, she said, adding that the classrooms would be available for other uses after hours.

The gift

Conspiracy was on the minds of some. A February 20 town statement announced a gift -- anonymous at the time -- of $1 million to the town to pay for "core structures," including an administration building and maintenance facility at the Town Center.

Retired Sunset Magazine publisher Bill Lane identified himself and his wife Jean as the donors in a letter included on the Viewpoints page of this issue of the Almanac.

The council, at its February 9 meeting, decided to build new administration and maintenance facilities at the Town Center, reasoning that the 50-year-old building's proximity to an earthquake fault presents an "unacceptable risk" to town staff and a safer location is available on town-owned land.

In an interview for this story, Councilman Ted Driscoll said he learned of the gift during a break at this meeting, after the council had made a unanimous decision to begin the project with these two facilities. Mr. Lane's letter corroborates this account, saying that the gift "immediately followed" the decision.

"There was definitely neither quid pro quo nor naming request with the gift, (as was) inferred during ... last week's council meeting," Mr. Lane said in his letter.

However, to some residents, the combination of the gift and a recent survey requiring business functions at the center seemed inconsistent with the council's promise to accept donations only after decisions of land and building use were made.

Sue Chaput questioned the council's unanimity, as did Pierre Fischer. "I have the same concern (as others) about these two items pre-checked," said Mr. Fischer. Why is the council so adamant about including these two facilities, he asked, then answered himself: "I guess the Town Council has about one million reasons."

Mr. Fischer also wondered about the town's options if all conditions are not met and the implications of a gift given in installments. "How can anyone call this an open democratic process," he asked.

Mr. Driscoll said he was "very deeply offended by the notion that there's some sort of conspiracy going on. I take the Brown Act very, very seriously." The Brown Act is a state law that promotes open government by regulating the contact and topics of discussion permitted among elected officials when not in formal settings.

Mr. Driscoll said he recalled feeling genuine surprise at the unanimity of the council -- and of the four most recent council members -- in opinions justifying the inclusion of a new administration building and maintenance facility on Town Center grounds.

The discussion over appropriate use of the Town Center will continue at a special council meeting scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday, June 7.

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