Narrow roads are Woodside's Gordian knot

Residents prefer narrow roads, but firefighters need avenues.

Click on picture to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

The dimensions of a road can mean different things to different people. Consider the seemingly contrary views of local firefighters and residents of the neighborhood bisected by Old La Honda Road, a scenic, narrow, steep and winding road about three and a half miles long with tributary roads of similar character, some privately maintained.

The topic of Woodside's rural roads and whether they're wide enough for fire trucks came up for another extended discussion at the Feb. 14 Town Council meeting. As happened in a similar discussion in January, results were inconclusive.

Life in Woodside's rural/urban borderland offers substantial wooded privacy and substantial property values. The narrow roads, some 12 to 14 feet across, are symbolic of Woodside's rural (as distinct from suburban) character.

Vehicle encounters may take a little time to resolve, but there usually is time. Besides, with private roads, residents bear the cost of making them wider. Such initiatives might involve considerable neighborly talk and compromise, not to mention the shared expense.

Firefighters have a different perspective. The woods in and around this neighborhood are thick and dry and near a major earthquake fault. In emergencies, firefighters need clear paths, immediately, to prevent conflagrations and to help people who may be desperate. At the same time and on those very same roads, fleeing residents need clear paths out.

One all-but-immovable object is the state fire code that mandates a minimum road width of 20 feet, though local fire districts have some discretion. The Woodside Fire Protection District, which serves Woodside, Portola Valley and nearby unincorporated areas, will allow 18-foot widths, and gravel on the surface to help with the rural character, Fire Marshal Denise Enea said in an interview.

With exceptions for major trees, that's about it for the district's flexibility. "We want to make sure that we can get in and people can get out," Ms. Enea said. "This isn't a subjective matter. It is not my opinion, or like I created this. It's set in stone."

"One thing about dealing with state and federal governments," mayor and builder Dave Tanner said at the council meeting. "They really don't like it when you reduce their standards."

A committee decision?

Private roads provide access to some 380 parcels in Woodside, about 15 percent overall, Town Manager Kevin Bryant said.

A private road can run "thousands and thousands of feet," Ms. Enea said. A vehicle stalemate during an emergency "would be deadly," she added. "Nobody would be able to get in or get out. We would be backing up thousands of feet."

Some of those roads are near Old La Honda Road, a neighborhood from which about 10 residents came for the council meeting. A few spoke.

Nancy Serrurier is engaged in building a home on Orchard Hill Road, which is private with four existing houses, Ms. Enea said. For a project like hers to pass muster, the Architecture and Site Review Board and the Planning Commission must vet it, and the fire marshal must sign the final building inspection. It needs an 18-foot road, Ms. Serrurier said. And since it's the Serruriers' project, widening the road will be at their expense.

(A fire district can't require a resident to widen a public road. That is a matter for the town, Ms. Enea said.)

None of the neighbors wants a wider road, Ms. Serrurier told the council. "The opportunity to really work together doesn't exist. We must submit."

Narrow private roads can stay narrow until someone builds a new home or extensively remodels one, Ms. Enea said. A major project triggers code updates all around, including the fire code as applied to the road.

If remodeling has this drawback, so may doing nothing. The fact that a road may have to be widened at the expense of one or more property owners could dampen future sales prospects and lower market values.

Resident Corinne Moesta suggested forming a working group that includes private-road residents. "We would like to work toward a fair resolution to this problem," she said.

"What is safe?" asked Mary Zverblis, who lives on Martinez Road. "There seems to be a lot of subjectivity and softness as to what is safe."

Councilman Peter Mason represents the neighborhood. The fire marshal sees road width standards "as a set of rational criteria, but I don't think that view is widely held," he said.

Twenty-foot roads throughout the town "would be horrible. It would ruin the town," Councilwoman Deborah Gordon said.

People need to sit and talk, maybe a group of two town staff, two council members, two residents and two fire district representatives, she said. "We're all working to try to do the same thing."

"We know where the residents stand on the (narrow roads) issue on Old La Honda Road, and the council is supposed to serve as impartial advocates for residents, always looking out for what is in the best interest of the entire community," Ms. Enea wrote in an email. "I think a subcommittee with town staff, council representatives and the fire district will be very productive in understanding the boundaries of modifying state code."

Ms. Gordon also suggested smaller equipment and vehicles, including fire trucks, that fit the roads. "That's the approach I would take to solve this problem," she said.

"Our fire trucks are as small as we can get with the ability to carry water to a neighborhood that has no water," Ms. Enea said when asked about truck sizes. Besides, she noted, firefighting is a regional activity. Trucks from Menlo Park and Redwood City need access as well.

Residents want to defend Woodside's rural lifestyle. "At the same time, how important is your life?" Ms. Enea asked. "There are egress codes for a reason. They are there for life safety."

Residents should be talking to their elected representatives on the fire district board, Councilman Dave Burow noted. "I think you elected these officials in the last election," he said. "We're influenced by residents. It seems like the other group (the fire board) should be influenced as well."

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Las Lomitas District parent
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Mar 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Seems to me if people choose to live in such environments, they accept the bad with the good. The good is rural living, great views, etc. The bad includes delayed response or lack of access by emergency response teams. People need to accept responsibility for their choices and take individual steps to improve their situation (perhaps buy higher levels of disaster insurance?) rather than make the city/county/state take care of them. California has many examples of places where homes should not be built (the sliding mud hill in La Conchita/Santa Barbara) or areas that should not be highly populated (Santa Ana wind fires in Topanga Canyon). Live there at your own risk. I'm tired of supplementing risky living choices with my high property taxes and insurance rates.

Like this comment
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2012 at 9:57 am

ANYONE living in California, and especially on the Peninsula which sits directly on the St. Andreas fault and has some of the most expensive homes in the U.S.have us all behaving like ostriches.
The destruction that would happen wouldn't be from collapsing homes like the tornadoes now in Indiana, Ohio,and three other states, but would ultimately be from fires like the gas explosions in San Bruno and the inability of people to escape on overcrowded roads and the death toll would be significant.
Those 75% of homes with large cement bunkers of the super rich who have had them retrofitted (mostly without permits)and in some cases, are paranoid of having their addresses published for fear of having to share their shelters with others.
It could and will happen at any time, but don't expect the same kind of brotherhood in those devastated areas.
To be blunt, I live next door to a home which has a bunker which has cement walls several feet thick and an underground living environment almost 3000 sq.ft. which was constructed while 15 ft. circus like tarps guarded the construction and digging.
When I asked the bldg. commission about it, they said that the six month construction time had a permit to put in a sauna.
Photos and names are not permitted for fear of invasion of privacy.
SO, narrow roads seem like a trivial worry when one ignores the potential catastrophe in an area all of us live.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Mar 6, 2012 at 12:36 pm

CA is the nanniest of states! Wouldn't surprise me when we're told what width and softness of TP we should be using...

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

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Legends Pizza Co. replaces Palo Alto Pizza Co.
By Elena Kadvany | 10 comments | 2,647 views

What is a "ton" of carbon dioxide anyway?
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 2,262 views

By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 985 views

Living as Roommates? Not Having Much Sex?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 616 views


The holidays are here!

From live music to a visit with Santa, here's a look at some local holiday activities to help you get into the spirit of the season.