Year in review: A look at issues, events in Portola Valley


The ownership of the Alpine Inn, a much loved beer garden and burger joint in Portola Valley, is expected to change hands before 2018 ends. A negotiation has been rumored to be underway since June, when a consortium of residents were bested in a final bid by a local couple, consortium organizer Lucy Neely told The Almanac. Information has been hard to come by ever since.

The year 2018 has been eventful for Portola Valley, including enactment of new laws on marijuana cultivation and new rules for outdoor lighting, introduction of a new smartphone app for communicating with Town Hall, and the opening of a new home for an old school.

Windmill School, the nonprofit preschool said to have first opened its doors in 1957, celebrated its move to a permanent home at 900 Portola Road in April. It's come a long way from inhabiting a small house near the windmill at Georgia Lane and Portola Road and employing an outdoor curriculum that included students gathering hens' eggs and watching sheep being sheared.

The new location, on 1.67 acres, includes an organic vegetable garden and a farm-like area for small animals. Plans included three classrooms inside along with outdoor playing areas, a theater, an outdoor gathering space, a courtyard and a family hall for large gatherings.

Council actions

It's uncommon for the Portola Valley Town Council to take action with a divided vote, but it happened in 2018 on the question of allowing commercial cultivation of marijuana. The council approved an ordinance in March on a 3-2 vote allowing commercial cultivation of up to 12 plants on any residential property in town.

The council is usually unanimous, and among the issues addressed unanimously in 2018 are the following:

• Agreeing to share "excess" property tax revenues earmarked for the town library with libraries in the nine less-wealthy communities in the county library system. The agreement is the result of four years of negotiations by the San Mateo County Libraries JPA (joint powers authority) and won't be in effect until after Atherton completes construction of its new library, expected to happen in 2021. Were the system in effect today, the library system would be getting about $33,000 annually from Portola Valley, according to Anne-Marie Despain, the system's director of library services.

• Revising nighttime outdoor lighting policies to reflect advances in lighting technology. Under the old rules, motion sensors were associated with flood lights, and discouraged. The new law prohibits flood lights and encourages motion sensors when used with low-intensity, downward-facing illumination sufficient to light a walkway or doorway.

• Asking residents to vote to renew the 4.5 percent utility users tax. Voters did so with a majority of 84.2 percent 661 votes in favor, and 124 opposed. Revenues are used for nonspecific purposes such as town operating expenses and capital improvements.

National issues, local actions

There were at least two politically oriented nighttime events in Portola Valley in 2018, including one with dim lighting:

• A candlelight vigil on the evening of Oct. 3 at Town Center in support of the FBI investigating the sexual assault allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court at the time. About 35 people attended.

• A gathering on the evening of Nov. 8 at the corner of Alpine and Portola roads to protest the appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting U.S. attorney general. About 20 people attended.

Other town matters

Since mid-November, residents have been able to contact Town Hall via a smartphone app PV Connect to request service for problems like littering and potholes. The app is available at the town's website and promises to keep subscribers up to date on public events, neighborhood events, emergency preparedness, and more.

The town is seeking comments from residents on its promotion of electric leaf blowers. Their gasoline-powered cousins can, in one hour, generate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to a car trip from Los Angeles to Denver; can produce noise up to 112 decibels, equivalent to a car horn at 3 feet away; can distribute toxic compounds; and can propel dust particles at speeds of hurricane-force winds.

Town Hall asks that residents send their ideas and comments to

A saloon since 1868

The Alpine Inn has had a good run at what is now 3915 Portola Road. A bronze tablet embedded in a boulder there notes that the building dates from the 1850s and that it served "as a gambling retreat and meeting place for Mexican-Californios." It has been a roadhouse and saloon since 1868.

And on it goes. Restaurateur and executive Greg St. Claire of the Avenir Restaurant Group in San Carlos said in an email that a transfer of ownership was expected in mid-December, but has since said that the deal has not closed.

St. Claire said that he would not yet elaborate on the deal. "I never talk about a deal until it's done," he said, but added: "It's going to be a great project as we all have deep roots, connections and a love of the property. As you know it has a rich history in the community."

The Alpine Inn is registered as both a state and a federal landmark. In Portola Valley's general plan, the inn is assigned a "preserve" designation. A historic resource singled out for preservation "shall have its exterior appearance retained to the maximum extent possible," the plan says.

Marijuana for sale?

Although commercial cultivation of up to 12 marijuana plants is allowed on any residential property in town, the town's ordinance prohibits curing or processing in town and requires that the plants be sold wholesale to a distributor. The grower must have state and local permits and must attend a hearing before the town's Planning Commission.

Voting against the ordinance were then-mayor John Richards and Councilwoman Ann Wengert. Councilwoman Maryann Derwin and councilmen Jeff Aalfs and Craig Hughes voted for it.

Wengert questioned whether it would address needs, concerns or requests of residents, and whether it passed a test of reasonableness. "They're not going to apply for all those permits. They're going to probably cut it down and dry it on their site," she said, adding that crime and fire could follow.

"It's a lot of work for 12 plants," Derwin said, "You know, if it were me, I just wouldn't get a permit."

The ordinance is imperfect, Hughes said, but added that he was against discouraging people from asking about commercial growing. The ordinance, he said, may help residents with property not amenable to cultivation who might form limited-liability corporations with neighbors who have more suitable land.


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