While 2020 will always be remembered as the year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, in Portola Valley it was also a period of self-examination, adaptation and looking toward the future.
The town banded together to help senior residents isolated due to the stay-at-home orders, as Roberts Market began offering curbside pickup service for the Sequoias retirement community -- aided by local volunteers bagging their orders -- and residents launched an initiative called PV Cares, in which volunteers assist vulnerable households with everything from grocery shopping to emotional support. Residents also came together over the summer for a socially distanced send-off for a beloved retiring UPS delivery driver and went on alert as the CZU wildfires prompted evacuation warnings in nearby La Honda.
The Town Council and residents also waded through a number of weighty issues. Development proposals, including a plan to allow wine tasting and wine club events at Neely Wine, and Stanford University's application to build housing on a portion of property it owns along Alpine Road, were met with some resistance from residents. The importance of wildfire preparedness and prevention was only underscored by the nearby CZU fires.
And the town, prompted by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, initiated discussions on racial equity and policing, forming a council subcommittee to engage residents and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office on these issues. The conversations have prompted an examination of the degree to which past and present policies in town may have unintentionally perpetuated racism and Portola Valley's reputation as a wealthy white enclave lacking socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.
The council also saw change at the end of 2020 as longtime member Ann Wengert declined to run for reelection in November. Portola Valley had its first contested council election since 2013 as four vied for the two seats up for election.
With 27% of the population 65 years old and over (as of the 2010 census), many residents found themselves in sudden isolation when the shelter-at-home order hit in March. To aid vulnerable households during the pandemic, residents started the PV Cares initiative, offering help with grocery shopping and other errands as well as tech assistance and emotional support. Roberts Market sought volunteers to help bag grocery orders for the Sequoias retirement community and was overwhelmed by the response.
Residents also came together to recognize an essential worker -- Menlo Park resident and UPS delivery driver Lew Hess, who retired at the end of July after handling the town's route for 35 years. A socially distanced crowd gathered outside the Portola Valley Hardware store for a "clap-out" on Hess' last day, where residents shared memories and brought gifts.
Financially, Portola Valley did not see the drastic budget and staffing cuts that other cities had to adopt in the economic fallout from the pandemic, although council members noted the revised 2020-21 budget they approved in October was "already quite lean," according to a staff report.
While revenue from classes and facility rentals fell to zero, nearly half of the town's revenue comes from property taxes, which have not been negatively impacted. Through "modest, surgical reductions in all departments, a slimmer capital improvement program, and expected ongoing reductions due to the pandemic," the town was able to retain all members of its full-time staff, according to a budget message from Town Manager Jeremy Dennis. The town anticipates $8.1 million in revenue and $8 million in expenditures this fiscal year, according to the adopted budget.
The town also authorized funding through the SMC Strong COVID business assistance program for Portola Valley businesses impacted by the economic downturn.
It's been nearly two years since Stanford University began pursuing a plan to build 27 faculty homes and 12 affordable rental units on a section of property it owns known as the Stanford Wedge, located on Alpine Road between Westridge Road and Golden Oak Drive.
The proposal is making its way through the environmental review process, with an administrative review expected to take place this month at the Planning and Architectural & Site Control commissions prior to the release of the environmental impact report (EIR), according to Dennis.
In February, a group of more than 300 residents signed a letter to the town demanding that Stanford withdraw its proposal, citing concerns about the addition of housing would cause a traffic jam on two-lane Alpine Road in the event of a fire emergency and fire hazards on the property itself. Woodside fire district officials have also expressed concerns that the property around the land that would be developed would be consistently difficult to clear of fire hazards.
Portola Valley Neighbors United, incorporated in January 2020 "to help our local community preserve and enhance its small, rural open space character," and co-founded by council candidate Mary Hufty, has come out in opposition to the Stanford Wedge project, dubbed [Portola Terrace.
With state mandates that could require the town to build 200 to 300 new housing units in the next decade, the council has also been weighing the concept of adding housing while also preserving Portola Valley's treasured rural character and not creating more wildfire risk in the process. In November, council members Craig Hughes and John Richards penned a letter to the Association of Bay Area Governments following a council discussion on the state Regional Housing Needs Allocation process, stating that the town will remain highly susceptible to wildfires and that it would like to engage "on the sensibleness of significant numbers of new homes in high-fire danger areas." They also said that, as the smallest staffed city in San Mateo County, "it is improbable that there would be an ability to hire enough staff to ensure a transparent and equitable entitlement process for any future applicants" if the draft state methodology is implemented.
Neely tasting room permit
The Planning Commission in early February provided feedback to town planning staff about a proposal from Neely Wine, located at 555 Portola Road, to allow wine tasting and wine club events on its property. First introduced in 2019, the proposal has been met with some resistance from residents concerned about the potential for increased noise and traffic. The Neely family has maintained that it needs to enhance the financial viability of the 228-acre property to keep it as open space, and that it would mainly target residents rather than out-of-towners in its wine club plans .
Commissioners in February were generally positive about the proposal's compliance with various criteria, including site adequacy and the proposed tasting room location.
Nothing new has developed with the proposal, according to Dennis. A Neely Wine traffic report and planning update is on the Jan. 6 agenda for the town's Bicycle, Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, following a Stanford Wedge look-ahead agenda item.
The wildfire risk in Portola Valley is nothing new, but it has been exacerbated by climate change. That combined with the CZU blaze earlier this year -- the largest wildfire on record in San Mateo County -- has increased the urgency among local officials and residents to prepare and adapt.
In April 2019, the Town Council formed the ad hoc Wildfire Preparedness Committee to advise the council periodically on ways to reduce wildfire danger and "increase resident resiliency in a wildfire emergency," according to its charter.
At the end of 2019, the council adopted a number of committee recommendations that are in various stages of implementation, including increasing outreach and education to residents on vegetation management and creating shaded fuel breaks along roadways with large adjacent properties.
The committee's latest proposals, which it will further develop before bringing them back to the council, include requiring 200 feet of defensible spaces on properties with 30% or greater average down slope; mandating that the largest properties in town have approved vegetation management plans; and banning future planting of five highly flammable trees: acacia, cypress, eucalyptus, juniper and pines.
The council in February is also slated to review draft amendments to the building code to address home hardening in new construction, which would mandate enclosed eaves, noncombustible siding and ember-resistant vents, and ban all combustible roofing materials, expressly shake roofs, according to a Dec. 9 staff report.
Unlike in 2019, however, Portola Valley did not see widespread power shutoffs from PG&E, which the utility initiated to reduce the risk of wildfires sparking from power lines that could fall in windy and dry conditions. In September, PG&E officials spoke with residents during a virtual meeting on wildfire preparedness, vegetation management and equipment maintenance, and the council formed a new PG&E Public Safety Subcommittee to explore the town's relationship with the utility.
Race and Equity Subcommittee
Following international Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May, the council formed a Race and Equity Subcommittee -- made up of Maryann Derwin and Richards -- that has spearheaded various efforts to engage residents and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office on issues related to policing, race and implicit bias, including creating a page on its website to collect public comments and launching a series of virtual town hall meetings on racial equity and policing in September. In October the town hosted a virtual panel entitled "Policing, Race & Justice in the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office," which included Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe and Rev. Lorrie Carter Owens, president of the San Mateo County chapter of the NAACP, among others.
At the June meeting when the subcommittee was formed, Derwin brought up the existence of old covenants, conditions and restrictions that prevented non-Caucasians from buying certain homes in Portola Valley and said such policies "have also been successful in keeping working class and now even middle-class families -- and by extension people of color -- out of most of our neighborhoods."
In a resolution condemning Floyd's murder, the town committed to looking at its own policies that "may perpetuate and maintain the racial and economic divide in Portola Valley with the hope that we may truly welcome more people of different economic and racial backgrounds into our community."
In November, the council approved a land acknowledgment recognizing that Portola Valley was previously inhabited by Ramaytush Ohlone peoples and "acknowledges the violent history of the land that it dwells upon ... and recognizes that it has, and will continue to, profit from land stolen from the Indigenous Ohlone peoples, and commits to an ongoing effort to dismantle these legacies."
Moving forward, the town has more virtual town hall meetings planned for 2021, and council members are participating in a "Building Race Equity" training held by Race Forward, a national nonprofit based in Oakland and New York.
Town Council election
Incumbent Jeff Aalfs, who served as mayor for 2020, and challenger Sarah Wernikoff were elected to the Town Council by a comfortable margin over challengers Hufty, a retired family physician, and technologist Angela Hey, who sits on the town's Bicycle, Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee.
Aalfs is entering his third term on the council and has indicated that it will likely be his last. Wernikoff, a Portola Valley School District volunteer with a background in web-based product management, was the first candidate to pull papers for the Town Council race, deciding to run after learning that Wengert, who served on the council for 13 years, was not running for reelection.
At its Dec. 9 meeting, council members swore in Aalfs and Wernikoff and appointed Derwin as mayor and Hughes as vice mayor for 2021.