Portola Valley: Town opens door to affordable housing plan


The Portola Valley Town Council is gearing up for a community discussion on steps to increase the supply of homes affordable to people of average means.

The council, which in April identified affordable housing as a top priority, on Oct. 12 gave a green light to Town Manager Jeremy Dennis to prepare a strategic plan to address the issue. Staff may have a draft in November that is likely to include ideas on second units and homes on town-owned land.

"There is an ongoing regional housing crisis," Mr. Dennis told the council. The local impact includes long commutes for employees in town, increased traffic, and tough times for elderly residents and grown children trying to remain in the community.

"It's a Portola Valley-centric problem that has Portola Valley-centric solutions," and public comment will be vital to addressing it, Mr. Dennis said.

Town government has not been idle. The council in 2015 approved expanded floor areas for second units on parcels of at least two acres, allowed two second units on parcels of at least 3.5 acres, and allowed a simplified review for units 750 square feet or less, up from 400 square feet.

As to what else might be done, Mr. Dennis floated ideas, including expanding second-unit options to parcels smaller than one acre, allowing larger second units and possibly subsidizing costs.

Councilwoman Ann Wengert asked Planning Director Debbie Pedro about the potential for modular housing. It's permitted but uncommon, Ms. Pedro said. Tiny homes are permitted, she said in an interview, provided they meet zoning code requirements and sit on a foundation.

Resident Bill Youstra suggested the council consider group purchases of prefabricated homes, as was done in 2006 when some 38 households got together and bought solar panels.

The council agreed to several recommendations from staff:

• Staff would explore ways to reduce estimated costs of up to $600,000 to build a 750-square-foot second unit. Making up that estimate are permit fees (4 percent), planning and design (13 percent) and construction (83 percent), the staff report says.

• Form a committee to study affordable housing. Ms. Wengert and Mayor Maryann Moise Derwin volunteered to serve with two Planning Commission members and three people from the public.

• Survey employers and employees in town on the desirability of living in housing on employer-owned property. A survey "really puts a face on this whole issue," Councilman Craig Hughes said.

In Town Hall, one staff member recently moved to Hayward from the Peninsula after an extraordinary rent increase, Ms. Derwin said. Three other staff members could face a similar situation, Ms. Derwin said by email. "In my opinion, we are beyond crisis at this point and into disaster," she said.

The town owns 26 properties in town, though most cannot be developed due to size, topography, location and proximity to utilities. The council could direct staff to "explore opportunities to produce modest and appropriate numbers of housing on town-owned land," the report says.

"Do we really see a potential upside to this?" Councilman Jeff Aalfs said. "Do we really believe that we could create housing on town-owned property?"

Controversy loomed over past initiatives. In 2003, the council rezoned 3.6 acres near Alpine and Portola roads for 15 to 20 small homes. Residents angry about higher housing densities challenged the council with a referendum and won. The houses were never built, but the issue split the community.

In July 2012, the council held a well-attended forum in connection with the council's intent to buy 1.68 acres at 900 Portola Road for homes for people of moderate incomes. Residents expressed strong pro and con opinions. The council eventually abandoned the property after learning of soil contamination. Windmill School bought it, cleaned it up, and won approval to begin construction of a preschool, all without significant controversy.

Replying to Mr. Aalfs, Ms. Wengert recommended another look at homes on town-owned land. "We've been committed to trying to do something for a long time" and the housing situation has evolved, she said, adding that it's important to determine which options are realistic.

Mr. Aalfs had no further comment.


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