Year in review: Atherton focuses on El Camino Real safety


The death of a pedestrian on El Camino Real in Atherton in late July prompted local officials already worried about conditions on the state highway bisecting the town to work even harder to make it safer.

Reducing El Camino from six lanes to four was one of the ideas in a pedestrian and bicycle master plan adopted by the town in 2014.

After working with Caltrans and state officials for months, Atherton's City Council in late October asked for a study of how traffic delays and safety would be affected if El Camino is modified. The council is expected to review a contract for the study early in the new year.

The town is also working with Caltrans to install pedestrian-controlled stop lights at at least two El Camino crossings.

The pedestrian and bicycle master plan was one of several forward-looking master plans adopted or studied by the town in 2014. A master plan for a new civic center was also adopted and master plans for Holbrook-Palmer Park, the town's only park, and for the town's storm drain system are also underway.

The plans detail a number of projects that will cost far more than the town has in its capital improvements budget. Among the challenges for the council in the coming year will be to prioritize the projects in the plans and decide how to pay for them.

Atherton's City Council made many of its decisions this year short one member, after Councilman Jim Dobbie resigned because of health problems in March. Mr. Dobbie, who was in his sixth year on the council and had also served four years on the town's Planning Commission, died in July.

Council members decided not to appoint a replacement for Mr. Dobbie and operated with only four members until December, when newly elected council member Mike Lempres was sworn in.

The November election, with four candidates for three open seats, was relatively calm compared to the 2012 election. The candidates expressed similar views, and the election was so close that its outcome was not certain for several weeks until all the late ballots were counted.

In the end, the three open seats went to incumbents Rick DeGolia and Bill Widmer, and newcomer Mr. Lempres. But fourth place candidate Rose Hau trailed Mr. Widmer by only 29 votes and Mr. Lempres by 34 votes.

One of the four candidates, Mr. Widmer, surprised the town not long after he was sworn in for his second term when it was revealed that the City Council in the Southern California city of Rancho Palos Verdes had approved a $215,000-a-year contract naming Mr. Widmer as its new city manager.

Elected officials and residents in both communities expressed concern when Mr. Widmer said he would continue as an Atherton council member while undertaking the new job. However, less than a week after unanimously approving the contract with Mr. Widmer, the Rancho Palos Verdes council voted to rescind the job offer.

Other controversies that received attention in Atherton during 2014 included an ongoing battle against the noise generated by Surf Air, a new commuter airline that began regular flights in and out of the San Carlos Airport in June 2013. Late in 2013 a group of local residents and officials, including Atherton Councilman Rick DeGolia, began meeting with representatives of Surf Air and the airport to try to alleviate the problem.

In late September, however, about a year later, enough people were still upset about the noisy planes that nearly 150 people came to a public meeting in Atherton. Surf Air officials promised to try to find ways to make planes quieter, including new propellers and taking slightly different routes to the airport.

Another issue that has generated ongoing controversy in Atherton is the facelift and new bleacher structure for Holbrook-Palmer Park's Little League field. The project was one of the issues on the contentious 2012 ballot that also included siting a new library in the park. While the measure to allow the library in the park was defeated, more than 75 percent of voters said yes to the new Little League facilities.

The controversy came, however, with the details. Atherton's Planning Commission said the Little League plans needed changes, especially in the size of the covered bleachers. The City Council in January of this year approved the project with only a few modifications, overruling most of the Planning Commission's concerns. Construction began in November with completion expected by February for the opening of a new Little League season.

Even after the construction had begun, however, Atherton residents continued to protest the plans. They presented a petition against the bleacher structure to the council in December.

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