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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
The bell has rung, Round 16 is over, and the advantage seems to be with the applicants, Dr. Kirk Neely and Holly Myers.
After almost three years of deliberations, the couple won approval from the Portola Valley Planning Commission for a proposal that includes building a barn in a scenic Portola Valley field, a part of their 229-acre property at 555 Portola Road.
The field, or meadow as the general plan refers to it, offers observers and Westridge neighborhood residents a much admired and tranquil scene. Starting with 100 yards or so of deep grass, often grazed by deer, the eye travels up across ridges of seasonal greens and browns to the 1,900-foot peak of Windy Hill, an open space preserve.
The Planning Commission unanimously rejected a similar plan a year ago but on Jan. 18, and bucking significant community opposition, they voted 4-1 to approve the couple's request for a permit to add, elsewhere in less visible locations, a cabana and pool, greenhouse, guest house and artist's studio.
Commissioner Leah Zaffaroni cast the dissenting vote.
A 17th round -- an appeal to the Town Council -- is likely, either from protesting neighbors or from the applicants. While the commission's approval did include permission to grow fruits and vegetables near the barn, it disallowed a vineyard. But eliminating the vineyard eliminates the project's economic viability, Dr. Neely told the commission.
Supporting the vineyard were Commission Chair Nate McKitterick and Commissioner Arthur "Chip" McIntosh, but the votes weren't there. In a 3-2 vote on a separate motion, commissioners Leah Zaffaroni, Denise Gilbert and Alexandra Von Feldt killed the vineyard, for now.
The general plan designates the field a "meadow preserve" that is "visually important to the entire quality of the valley." Resolving the question of whether a vineyard is acceptable in a meadow preserve is a matter for the council, not the Planning Commission, Ms. Gilbert noted.
For Ms. Zaffaroni, a meadow is low lying land covered with grass, and this is a meadow preserve. She said she could find accommodation with some agriculture if the scale is right.
In voting against the project as a whole, Ms. Zaffaroni said she opposed a cabana higher up, on land zoned as residential open space. The general plan calls for "clustering" of residential structures so as to preserve the natural beauty of views; the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has called the plan "highly dispersed," Ms. Zaffaroni said.
Beauty, the classicists say, is in the eye of the beholder. "To me, agriculture is preserve," Mr. McIntosh said. "It's interesting, it's attractive, it's been in the town for 150 years."
"I'm glad we're not facing a residential development proposed in the meadow," he added. "I think the Neelys have been terrific stewards of the land."
Mr. McKitterick, an attorney, opted for another classic: the reasonable man's view. "Reasonable minds are going to differ," he said. "The application is largely consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the general plan. In its current form, it is reasonable enough to pass my muster."
Of the 25 or 30 people in the audience, only two spoke at any length in support of a barn in the field.
"I think the barn is consistent with other buildings in the scenic corridor," said Danna Breen, who said in an interview that she was speaking as a private citizen. Ms. Breen is a member of the town's Architectural and Site Control Commission, which has weighed in on this project many times.
"I think we can hardly say that our town is moving in a sustainable direction if we don't allow the Neelys to produce food," Ms. Breen said. "Change happens," she added. "I think having local food would really be an asset."
Steve Toben, a former planning commissioner and former mayor, said he sees no conflict with having row crops near open space or a barn near row crops in a town that proclaims its rural ethos.
Jon Silver disagreed. "Good stewards (of the land) don't put barns on agricultural land," said Mr. Silver, a former town mayor and county planning commissioner. "On 229 acres, there have got to be better locations for the building."
"Is a meadow still a meadow if there's a vineyard on it?" asked resident and project opponent Bev Lipman. "Do fruits and vegetables fit in a meadow?," she asked. "I say, 'Let there be hay.'"
"I don't think haying is a benign use of this land," said resident Annaloy Nickum. Agriculture in Portola Valley had its day in the mid-20th century, she said, and added that farming of fruits and vegetables means pest control, and that means wildlife such as deer being reclassified as pests.