In introducing the chapter on land use, Woodside's general plan says rural character "should be retained or restored as much as possible." The first topic in the residential design guidelines: "Rural character and community aesthetics."
But what does that term mean when some neighborhoods are deeply wooded, others are fully suburban, and the average home price is in the millions? Mention rural character in a Town Council meeting and you'll see smiles, sometimes broad smiles, but hear not a word on a working definition.
Former mayor Ron Romines defended his view of rural character during his 10 years on the council. "I saw myself as being more on the side of trying to promote and protect what I see as community values and sort of maintaining the rural environment that everybody loves to talk about in Woodside," he said.
The debate between property rights advocates and living-in-harmony-with-nature advocates "is very healthy," he said. "We often had some really good policy discussions, with council members having different viewpoints. ... I think, in the end, everyone felt like they were heard if not agreed with. That's the way government should work."
"Mr. Romines is consensus-building, reflective, thoughtful, intelligent, dedicated to the town, warm, and generous with his time and talents," Planning Director Jackie Young said. He spent "countless hours" reviewing and editing the final draft of the general plan adopted in 2012, she said.
In adopting a climate action plan, Mr. Romines voted in the minority, against the exclusion of published research on the effects of climate change and the contributing role of human activity.
Since he retired in December, he has been commenting from the audience. He sat down with the Almanac to talk about how he came to live in Woodside and some issues before the town.
In love with a town
While in law school at Stanford University in 1967, Mr. Romines and five colleagues rented a home on Whiskey Hill Road. "I fell in love with Woodside before I-280 existed," he said. "I drove out to this other world where the sights and the sounds were so invigorating."
He married Judy Knapp, a Stanford librarian, in 1971 and they bought a 1,900-square-foot house in Woodside Glens, where they raised two children. "I find it so hard to believe we still live there," he said. "It's pretty small."
Mr. Romines specialized in family law at the Palo Alto firm of Romines & Eichner.
In the 1960s, he was "heavily involved" in defending anti-war protesters, union workers, gay and lesbian clients and others outside the mainstream, he said.
Mr. Romines was then with the Palo Alto Law Commune, which treated salaries philosophically. "We all got paid according to our needs," he said. "If you had a spouse who was employed, you got paid less. ... It was a pretty interesting experiment."
In Woodside, the Town Council tries to bring "rational control" to land use, Mr. Romines said. "That's where local government, for better or worse, has authority."
Regional planning would help, he said. "If land use and planning were done on a regional or state level, I think we could much more effectively try to meld our housing supply with our population's needs," he said.
Instead, he said, there are state requirements to make seven-year plans to accommodate lower-cost housing, should a developer have viable plans. "The marketplace still dominates," he said.
In Woodside, "we seem to be in a period where there's more pressure to develop," he said. "We've had some insanely large basements in the last several years which finally led to (the council) saying that we have to regulate basements."
Basements aren't visible, but create potential for intensified use of roads, sewers and water, he said.
"People move to Woodside and they value Woodside because of its rural environment and yet people will make proposals for their individual properties that go counter to protecting and preserving their environment," he said. "It seems like a disconnect. Each project has an impact on what Woodside may look like 50 years from now. It's very hard to see that in terms of one property owner."
Subjectivity on trial
Woodside government has been in the hot seat recently. A group of residents, usually with construction projects in progress, have complained to the council that members of the Architectural and Site Review Board were being too subjective in their analysis of which aspects of a project meet design guidelines.
The board's mission is, perhaps arguably, subjective: they are supposed to protect rural character and natural beauty by considering a project's character, site planning, building design and landscaping, in keeping with sustainability-oriented directives added to the general plan and design guidelines in 2012. The council has been slowly updating the municipal code to match the new directives.
In a study session in the spring of 2014, the board asked the council for help. Applicants push the envelope, board members said. Unaware of the town's complex topography, some see three acres as three buildable acres. Applicants are told to come up with broad conceptual designs, but show up with detailed, expensive drawings. The board makes suggestions on how to meet guidelines and applicants return with unchanged plans.
This study session behind them, as the months passed, the council did not defend the board and its complicated mission as residents complained. "I think that's generally true," Mr. Romines admitted. "In retrospect, I think the council didn't get involved soon enough in trying to help staff provide direction and guidance."
The council could have held more study sessions or formed a subcommittee, and might have more fully aired its concerns and expectations, he said.
Editor's note: This is one of two profiles of Woodside residents who recently left the Town Council but are staying involved in civic affairs. The other was on former councilman Dave Burow.