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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Two recent events have ratcheted up the tension in Portola Valley. On Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 29, came word of ("Keep PV Rural"), a new website backing residents who oppose the town's negotiations to buy a flat 1.68-acre former plant nursery on a major traffic arterial at 900 Portola Road. The Town Council wants to build between eight and 12 small homes on the site for people of moderate incomes, and restrict home sales to people who live or work in town.
A state mandate requires such housing in all cities and towns; regional agencies set the quotas for each town and monitor a town's progress toward meeting that quota -- even if, as is the case in Portola Valley, a typical house has a seven-figure price tag. In San Mateo County, a moderate income is around $86,500 for an individual and $123,600 for a family of four, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
On Wednesday evening at around 8 p.m., the Town Council (in closed session as is common for real estate matters) voted unanimously to authorize purchase of the nursery property. When the council reconvened in open session, Leigh Prince, an attorney in the town attorney's law firm, said the vote as 4-0-1, with Councilman Ted Driscoll absent.
A copy of the agreement obtained by the Almanac specifies a purchase price of $2.6 million, with an additional payment of not more than $400,000 to cleanse the soil of hazardous substances from nursery operations. Escrow is set to close on Dec. 21, 2012. The town owns four parcels in the Blue Oaks neighborhood; the agreement is contingent on their sale at a price "at least equal to" that of the nursery property.
Particularly upset over this project are residents of Wyndham Drive, a circular cluster of single-family homes that sits just behind the nursery property. "There's general disappointment" over the council's action, resident Bud Eisberg said in an interview.
In an Aug. 29 message on the community's online forum, Mr. Eisberg announced "Keep PV Rural," a website representing a coalition of residents opposed to the project and "formed to oppose high density development in Portola Valley." Some 93 percent of Wyndham Drive residents oppose the project versus 7 percent who support it, Mr. Eisberg said. A key factor going forward, he added, will be the number of homes built on the site.
The Blue Oaks parcels had been designated for eight units. The town has a published objective of eight to 12. Affordable-housing subdivisions tend to be built by developers familiar with how to make them profitable. A Blue Oaks project never got started in part because developers said that grading the land would be prohibitively expensive, the town planner has said.
In the housing chapter in Portola Valley's general plan is a passage that seems tailored to the nursery site: "The highest population densities should occur in relatively level areas close to major centers of commerce and industry where coordinated development is possible and where transportation and other necessary public facilities can readily be provided."
"The Town's purpose is to relocate the below market rate (BMR) housing that had been planned in Blue Oaks plus additional units," Mr. Eisberg said in his message opposing this project. "We as a community should debate and decide how to best provide for our affordable housing needs. We favor the continuation of using second units (cottages) to accomplish this. ... We are not opposed to BMR housing. We are opposed to high density housing squeezed onto the nursery parcel which could set a precedent for other neighborhoods and adversely affect our scenic corridors."
Could the town use second units to meet its obligations? Interim Planning Manager Steve Padovan told the Almanac that based on the town's conversations with the state, "we think it would be difficult to get our housing element (part of the general plan) certified if we relied solely on second units."
On a schedule of about once every five years, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a regional land-use planning agency acting on behalf of the state, offers to certify housing elements for individual Bay Area communities. A certified element includes an updated quota for low- and moderate-income homes. It's a complex equation that includes considerations such as infrastructure, topography, land availability, land conservation, income distribution and economic trends.
A housing element that is certified can be important. Without one, the state can:
■ Force a town to create a zoning category for as many as 20 homes per acre.
■ Halt property development by suspending the town's right to issue building and planning permits.
■ Reduce the window of processing time that a town has for developing properties.
Noncompliant towns are also open to lawsuits by affordable-housing advocates, Ms. Prince said. A loss in court can mean reimbursing the advocacy group for attorney fees. Pleasanton paid $2 million in attorney fees, she said.
Click here for more information on affordable housing in Portola Valley.