Should barn be allowed in 'the meadow'


Click on picture to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

A few ambiguous phrases in the town's general plan about a scenic field of grass -- commonly referred to as "the meadow" -- along the scenic corridor of Portola Road became a hot potato for the members of the Portola Valley Town Council on Oct. 26. They juggled it for 15 or 20 minutes and tossed it right back to those who tossed it to them: the Planning Commission.

The key question on this privately owned field in a town known for its environmental ethic: Does ambiguity in the general plan tacitly allow or tacitly forbid the presence of a barn for agricultural purposes? How vital and perhaps even sacred is the current view, unhindered by manmade objects and prized in particular by residents of the Westridge neighborhood.

The council modified the language in May 2011, managing to add new ambiguities as they removed the old ones, and the commissioners wanted clarification.

The passage from September 1970 read: "This preserve should be kept largely open, the existing character preserved, and present agricultural uses maintained." The May 2011 version reads: "This preserve should be kept in a natural condition and the existing agricultural character preserved."

The commissioners questioned the meaning of "natural condition" and the council's intent in the phrase "existing agricultural character preserved." Would agricultural uses be historical, such as an orchard or hay field, or can a vineyard go in the field, or a vegetable garden? Can the commission determine what to allow, and can visual impact be considered a factor?

At its Oct. 26 meeting, the council agreed that the commission should use the 1970 language for the barn project, since that language was in effect in January 2011 when they considered the project, which had the effect of mooting the commission's questions about the council's intentions in May. The implicit message to the Planning Commission: interpreting ambiguous language is part of the job.

"I don't envy the Planning Commission," Councilman Steve Toben remarked.

The barn-in-the-field question is a tough one. The field introduces the roadside observer to a much loved landmark in town: the 1,900-foot peak of Windy Hill. The view is a package of cascading seasonal greens and browns. From the road, the view traverses 100 yards or so of deep grass, often grazed by deer, and rises uninterrupted to the sky, climbing ridge upon ridge of undeveloped land.

The general plan calls the field a community open space preserve. The couple who own it, Dr. Kirk Neely and Holly Myers, have applied to the Planning Commission to build a barn there, part of a plan that includes a cabana and pool, greenhouse, guest house and artist's studio, all in less visible places on their 229-acre property at 555 Portola Road. (The field is off limits for human habitation because an earthquake fault runs under a corner of it.)

The plan faired poorly at the Jan. 19 meeting of the Planning Commissioners, where it was unanimously voted down. Without the barn, at least two of the buildings might have been approved, but the couple's architect, Carter Warr, would not have that. "Our intent has not been to pursue two buildings," he said at the time. "If we wanted the two buildings, we probably could have had the two buildings a year ago."

"I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with a building in the meadow," Commissioner Alexandra Von Feldt said at the time, after noting the conflicts with Portola Road's "scenic corridor" designation and the field's seismic problems.

Dr. Neely and Ms. Myers have options -- appeal the commission's decision to the council, revise their plans, file a lawsuit.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm

What if they let them build the new Jail there? Oh, a barn isn't such a bad idea now...on PRIVATE land for crying loud! Let the opponents pay the property taxes if they like the view so much.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Breon
a resident of another community
on Nov 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm


I don't think you understand Portola Valley. I grew up there and spent ten years on the Planning Commission, though I live elsewhere now. Portola Valley has struck a different balance between private property rights and community property interests, when compared with some surrounding communities. Thus, we have very few walls around properties, very few large, formal gardens, very few Georgian mansions. In exchange for not getting to do whatever we want with a PV property, we know that the others around us follow similar rules, and thus PV is arguable a more attractive community where, as our General Plan states, the human structures remain subservient to the landscape. That philosophy has served the Town well for decades now, and people move into Town knowing that they will have more restrictions on their property than some nearby communities, and that with that small sacrifice they reap the great blessings PV has to offer.

Like this comment
Posted by Redfield Flash
a resident of another community
on Nov 4, 2011 at 4:34 pm

It would seem that the citizens of Portola Valley have a right to uphold their desire to have a meadow to look at as they leisurely drive along dodging bicycles, horses and other impediments to pastoral life, but in the same vein it would seem that the property owners have a right to pursue "Agricultural" interests like a barn on their land. With that in mind, I propose that Portola Valley should "rent" by the hour the meadow view, and should pay the property owners an hourly rental fee for the privilege of looking across the greenery, without a messy barn to disturb their view. As I understand it, Portola Valley views carry a weighty price, so the citizens should prepare to pay out the nose to look across pasture land. Seems fair to me!

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Posted by Robert
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 4, 2011 at 8:00 pm

In cross-country trips, there aren't many more memorable and pastoral scenes than barns in meadows, sometimes with hay bales or those cylinders of hay out there, sometimes with painted ad on the side for Mail Pouch Tobacco.

This is what meadows look like. They are beautiful. They are evocative. They are statements of ownership and practicality. They are the music, embodied, of the harvest. They are evidence of industry and husbandry. They say, "This land is being worked," or "This land was worked once, a long time ago. Imagine it, if you will."

Is this town a place apart from practicality and industry, and is that a point of pride? If so, maybe that needs to be reexamined.

Like this comment
Posted by Jack
a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 5, 2011 at 11:02 am

I have driven past this meadow for 30+ years and appreciate everyday that I can still see the hills and open space there. There is life & habitats in this meadow...deer, quail, large birds, ground nesting birds, squirrels, foxes, rabbits, and other species who, through their foraging and nesting, create and maintain the meadow's & Portola Valley's beauty from the ground up. There are plenty of other designated areas and facilities near there to keep horses.
There are 2 commercial barns within 1/4 mile. Once a barn is built in that meadow there will be horse trailers, cars, dust & dirt and worse, no guarantee of the barn's future use..the next owner may use it as a garage, storage, or house. Every property owner here has to abide with PV's codes & restrictions to protect for ALL the wildlife & scenic beauty. This keeps our community desirable and valuable. It is very sad when some don't feel they have to respect or observe the spirit or mandates of a special community like ours and instead, want to spoil a meadow we have long cherished and then move on. I have seen this so many times in Woodside where owners won't take no for an answer, get their building exceptions, build, live here for a few years and then move away. We have to live with their behemoths.

Like this comment
Posted by Jack
a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 5, 2011 at 11:49 am

Are you saying paying property taxes should give the owner freedom to do whatever they please to their property at the expense of the neighborhood and community? Money can't buy everything even though some newcomers feel otherwise.

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Posted by narnia
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Point Reyes National Seashore (U.S. National Park Service) should give Portola Valley an idea of wether a barn, of all buildings the most related to agriculture pursuits, should be allowed to be built. People are being very unreasonable in this case. It's not a matter of doing whatever someone wants with a property- it's a matter of doing something specific and entirely appropriate for an agricultural meadow- a barn.

If the naysayers apply the same reasoning to their own property I guess they wouldn't be allowed to build anything that doesn't conform with the Oholones way of living.
The radicalism of those who think that anything that doesn't conform with their way of seeing things is astonishing because the only objection they have is " I, don't like it".

That is the stuff narcissism is made of.

Like this comment
Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Nov 7, 2011 at 8:58 am

ABSOLUTELY should be allowed.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Didn't the owners know the restrictions when they purchased the land? Seems as tho now that they are in they want to change the scenery.
Lets keep PV rural !!

Like this comment
Posted by Olive
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Nov 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I agree with the objection that the current owners who want to build a barn, a cabana and swimming pool, a greenhouse, a guest house and an artist studio obviously just want to move off of the hill and into the most pristine and stunning meadow left here in PV. What we cannot understand is how does their request even remotely resemble what our Town Fathers wrote in 1970 or again this year to protect this most beautiful, rare and historic site in its natural state from development like this! Our Town Fathers wrote very wisely, "This preserve should be kept largely open, the existing character preserved, and present agricultural uses maintained." In addition, the 2011 language is nearly identical as it obviously could not be improved upon. It's our understanding that the present owners always knew that building in the meadow was forbidden and bought their acreage with the knowledge of restricted use, particularly as to the meadow and knew that some of it and the road lie directly over the San Andreas Fault. We have lived here in PV for 15 years and recall these restrictions being brought up at town meetings even with respect to the buildable sites above this meadow which were required to be out of sight from the road. So how and why does this request continue to be revisited by our Town Council and Planning Commission when the plans noted will obviously change and ultimately destroy this naturally preserved meadow and turn it into this current owners' new glamorous home complete with swimming pool and pool house and guest house and barn/garage and artist's studio/home? Unfortunately for everyone and everything else it seems pretty obvious that the current owners want to build some five or so structures and seem unwavering in their drive to move ahead to domesticate this last-of-its-kind meadow here in PV. It's always sad to see development encroach where it was not meant to and we will be very sad to see such development succeed where it need not and should not be and also very sad to see that our Town Fathers were not able to protect this wild and natural meadow they so wanted to keep as it always was.... for all and for generations to come.

Like this comment
Posted by Dave Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Nov 9, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Dave Boyce is a registered user.

My understanding is that the meadow/field would be home to a barn only, and that the other buildings would be built more or less out of sight, but certainly not in the meadow. I believe the seismic fault makes the meadow uninhabitable by human beings, per the municipal code.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 9, 2011 at 8:53 pm

If " Town Fathers (want) to protect this wild and natural meadow ... to keep as it always was.... for all and for generations to come." then they should simply exercise the Town's right of eminent domain and buy it at its fair market price.That way everyone who gets to enjoy it can properly share the cost of doing so.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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