Skywood Acres in Woodside is a neighborhood of 70 to 80 hillside homes along five streets just north of La Honda Road and east of Skyline Boulevard. The neighborhood has a single entry point, from La Honda Road via Skywood Way. From the air, most of the homes cannot be seen because the tree foliage is so dense.
More than once during the winter just past, storm water runoff caused mudslides and erosion on La Honda Road that blocked traffic, sometimes east of Skywood Way, sometimes west, sometimes east and west, in effect marooning the entire neighborhood. Had there been a medical or public safety emergency in Skywood Acres, these blockages could have complicated rescue efforts.
"I can personally confirm that there were multiple times that the entire Skywood Acres Subdivision was completely landlocked for hours on end in each instance," resident David Madrid said.
The residents of Skywood Acres came to Independence Hall on March 14 to weigh in as the Town Council considered a proposal by town staff to make use of an easement it owns to create a second entrance to Skywood Acres from Skyline Boulevard. A key point: the town's rights restrict access at the easement to a locked gate that may be unlocked only in case of an emergency.
Woodside's rights on this easement were not always limited to emergency access. San Mateo County established a public right-of-way there in 1957 when it approved the Skywood Acres subdivision, according to a staff report. Residents used this right-of-way into their neighborhood, but to their annoyance so did the general public as an alternative to La Honda Road.
Woodside annexed the neighborhood in 1975. Around that time, responding to Skywood Acres residents concerned about cut-through traffic, the town vacated public access rights to the easement other than for emergency reasons. The easement itself remained physically unblocked, so the residents added a guardrail.
In the decades since, residents have made do, getting to Skyline Boulevard via a private drive behind the Skywood Trading Post. The drive has a gate, but the gate's traditionally been left open, residents said.
In October 2016, someone -- it's not clear who -- locked the gate and efforts to get permission to unlock it have been unsuccessful. Residents say the gate, open for decades, created a "prescriptive easement" that mitigates against its closure. Town officials have said that determining the existence of a prescriptive easement is a judicial matter.
In response to the locking of the private gate, the town proposed to reopen its easement, without the public access rights that it vacated, and with a locked gate to prevent use other than for emergencies.
The residents do not oppose a gate but want it to be automatic, allowing them to open it, preferably by pressing a key fob against a controller. Outsiders and their cut-through traffic would not have access.
The neighbors have their own line of authority, Mr. Madrid said. The county approved a subdivision map in 1957 that included three points of access to the neighborhood, and state law guarantees residents those three access points over time, he said. The town's response, Mr. Madrid added, has been to tell the residents to "get a court order," since the town is without the authority to adjudicate the matter.
A complication: ownership of the easement is split down the middle. "I understand the dilemma," Stein Hoffmoen, who with his wife Eloise Yamamoto Hoffmoen is one of the owners, said in an interview when asked if he appreciated the concerns of residents. "But I also paid for this half of the (easement) road. ... We're all for emergency access, but we don't want it for everybody."
Asked about the possibility of a residents-only electric gate, Mr. Hoffmoen did not categorically reject the idea, but said he would expect to be appropriately compensated for the 7,000 square feet of his property that could be involved in such a project.
Mr. Madrid, who is an attorney, criticized the town's advice that residents get a court order. "That is not the proper role of government," he said.
The town should be facilitating a conversation, Mr. Madrid said. "Don't force us to hire lawyers," he said. "Join us. Let's work this out."
Town Attorney Jean Savaree said the town is encouraging neighbors to engage with each other.
Several residents told the council they would not have bought property in Skywood Acres had there been just one access point at the time.
A wildfire would consume the neighborhood in 15 or 20 minutes, eight-year Ranch Road resident Matt Blake said. "The concept of a 911 access-only gate is ludicrous," he said.,
Another resident posed several questions, including who would define what constitutes an emergency, who would have the keys to a locked gate, and who would be liable if a locked gate leads to injuries.
Councilman Chris Shaw, referring to what he called the elephant in the room, remarked: "We, as a town, royally screwed up when we vacated the (easement) rights."