Atherton year in review: civic center, Surf Air, new ballpark and more


Atherton spent much of 2015 working on plans for a new civic center — hiring an architect, approving a conceptual plan, and starting to raise the private funds needed to pay for it.

The town also continued to work through the year to try to limit the noise from commuter airline Surf Air, which continues to increase its flights over the Midpeninsula.

In May, despite opposition by some residents, a new Little League ballpark opened in Holbrook-Palmer Park with a tribute to the guest of honor, Willie Mays.

In June, the town lost one of its most-involved civic volunteers, Phil Lively.

In July, the town learned that Pacific Gas & Electric planned to explore removing as many as 600 trees in its right-of-way.

And in November, for the third year in a row, Forbes Magazine named Atherton the home of the most expensive residential real estate in the country.

Civic center

In March, Atherton chose architects WRNS Studio, the architectural firm that designed the master plan and energy-efficient library for Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, out of five finalists to design the town's new civic center. After a series of meetings with the public and local officials, the architects presented several designs to the town's Civic Center Advisory Committee, which recommended a conceptual plan to the City Council in October.

The concept approved by the council shows a two-story, 27,000-square-foot building for police, administration and council chambers. The building would have two wings joined by a common lobby, located near Fair Oaks Lane. New council chambers would be at the end of the police wing, away from the lobby.

A new one-story library of slightly less than 10,000 square feet would be located near the site of the existing library. The existing historic council chambers building would be renovated and serve as an extension of the new library. There would be a small police garage building. The existing small corporation yard building, where the town stores maintenance and emergency equipment, would stay, and several streets would be rerouted around the new buildings.

Because a 2012 ballot measure approved by Atherton voters says the civic center must be mostly paid for with donations, a fundraising group called Atherton Now spent the year working on raising money to pay for the new civic center.

When the conceptual plan was approved in October, it was estimated that close to $27.2 million in donations would be needed. The rest of the funding for the $43 million project will come from public funds that have been set aside to pay for a new library and for building department offices.

In December, Atherton council member Rick DeGolia said that, counting the public money set aside for the projects and committed donations, about half the total cost of the civic center remains to be raised.

Surf Air

Atherton residents and others who live under the flight path of Surf Air, a small commuter airline that began flying in and out of the San Carlos Airport in June 2013, have been complaining almost since the flights began about noise from the company's turbo-prop planes. The company offers unlimited scheduled flights for a monthly fee.

Those complaints expanded this year when the company announced in late spring it was adding 27 round-trip flights a week to San Carlos.

Along with the flights, the complaints expanded and by late December, more than 800 people had signed a petition on objecting to the airlines' flights in and out of the San Carlos Airport.

In September the Atherton City Council sent a letter to San Mateo County, which owns San Carlos Airport, demanding something be done to quiet the noise and limit expansion of the airline.

Soon after, Supervisors Don Horsley and Warren Slocum were appointed to a subcommittee to work on the issue. Supervisor Horsley said airport management is so busy taking noise complaints they have time to do little else.

In addition to making changes at the airport, the supervisors promised to work with the Federal Aviation Administration, because the FAA controls most airport regulations.

Little League ballpark

Construction began in late 2014 on a new Little League grandstand and playing field in Holbrook-Palmer Park, paid for by the Menlo-Atherton Little League. Although the project received overwhelming voter approval when it was on the ballot in 2012, some Atherton residents had continued to oppose the project, and in late January even picketed at the entrance to the park.

But the opening of Homer Field at Willie Mays Ballpark in early May was a festive community event honoring Atherton resident and baseball legend Willie Mays and Mike Homer, who donated much of the money for the park's original field. Mr. Mays attended the event as did the family of Mr. Homer, who died in 2008.

Hundreds enjoyed hotdogs, Cracker Jack and sodas along with cupcakes celebrating Mr. Mays' 84th birthday.

Phil Lively

In June, Atherton lost one of its most involved civic volunteers when Phil Lively died at the age of 86 from complications from a stroke.

Mr. Lively, who was the chair of Atherton's Planning Commission at the time of his death, had first joined the commission in 1996. He served on the Lindenwood Homes Association board of directors and organized his neighborhood's emergency preparedness activities. He also served on the General Plan Committee, the Rail Committee, the Town Center Task Force and the Civic Center Advisory Committee.

PG&E and trees

In July, Pacific Gas & Electric officials told the Atherton City Council they planned to inform the owners of 600 trees in the utility's gas transmission line easements that their trees might need to come out.

PG&E started the program after it was ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission in early April to put $850 million of shareholder funds into "gas transmission pipeline safety infrastructure improvements," as part of $1.6 billion in penalties following the San Bruno pipeline explosion.

Some Atherton council members reacted angrily to the news of the program. "I really don't feel you're doing great work," Councilman Cary Wiest said. "What have you done in the 50-plus years you've had the easements on these properties? I'll guess nothing."

PG&E promised to follow the town's procedures for removing trees, which requires a permit for any tree removal and a Planning Commission hearing for trees big enough to be considered heritage trees.

In September PG&E representatives said they had reached agreements to remove 16 trees, out of 242 that had been inspected, far fewer than the 30 to 40 percent of trees in gas line easements PG&E officials had said they had removed in other communities.

PG&E said in September it had spoken to 27 property owners and come to agreements with six of them.

PG&E has begun a similar program in Menlo Park, and in Palo Alto, where the city urged homeowners not to sign contracts with the utility.

Real estate

Once again in 2015, for the third year in a row, Forbes magazine named Atherton the home of the most expensive residential real estate in the county, with the magazine figuring the median price of homes listed for sale in Atherton when it did its research at $10,564,038.

It isn't only home prices that have become stratospheric in Atherton. In April we wrote about a seven-bedroom, 10-bathroom new home listed by a local real estate firm as for lease for $50,000 a month.

The rental is still listed according to, with the price reduced to $39,000 a month.

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2 people like this
Posted by Richard Hine
editor of The Almanac
on Jan 4, 2016 at 5:40 pm

Richard Hine is a registered user.

Willie Mays greatly deserves this recognition by Atherton.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 4, 2016 at 5:57 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Richard - Very nice review of the year - thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by Barbara Wood
Almanac staff writer
on Jan 5, 2016 at 10:50 am

Barbara Wood is a registered user.

You're welcome Peter.
Happy New Year!

3 people like this
Posted by No extra funding
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 5, 2016 at 9:38 pm

Measure L: "Should the Town of Atherton primarily use private donations to construct and design a new Town Center? Other funding sources might include funds derived from Building fees or future grant money but would not use general fund or parcel tax money.

I hope they don't plan on going back to the residents to pay for this project.

3 people like this
Posted by Measure L
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 6, 2016 at 6:56 am

"I hope they don't plan on going back to the residents to pay for this project."

Especially when the grandiose design of the huge new civic center was based on residents not paying for it. If it were to be residents, or will be residents, it should be scaled way back to something affordable. We don't need a 27,000 square foot police station for a small police department that is supposed to be out walking or riding a beat most of the time anyway.

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

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