Portola Valley kicked off a series of meetings to review Stanford University's proposed 39 housing units of housing on part of 75 acres of university property often referred to as the "Stanford Wedge" during a three-and-half-hour Planning Commission study session on Wednesday night.
During the two years since the project was initially proposed, residents — some of whom were among the more than a dozen people who spoke during a public comment period of the meeting — have cited potential traffic jams and fire hazards as reasons to oppose the development. More than 60 members of the public attended the online meeting.
Stanford, which has revised plans for the development several times, resubmitted plans on Nov. 20 to develop 27 single-family, two-story residences designated for Stanford faculty and staff, and 12 rental units in three, two-story buildings that would be available for below market rate clustered on approximately 7 acres at 3530 Alpine Road.
The project, dubbed Portola Terrace, would mostly be located between Westridge and Golden Oak drives, which is the flattest portion of the site, according to a report staff prepared for the meeting. Since the early 1990s it has been designated to allow multi-family housing for employees or staff affiliated with the university.
The Planning Commission received a slew of comments both in favor and against the project via email before the Wednesday meeting, along with public comments during the meeting.
Commissioner Nicholas Targ recused himself from the item since he is a Stanford employee. Vice Chair Anne Kopf-Sill also recused herself since she lives close to the site.
During the meeting, resident Nan Shostak, a retired geologist, said residents of the proposed homes could be put in danger during an earthquake since the project lies directly on top of the Hermit Fault line. The damage caused by earthquakes can also heighten the risk of sparking a wildfire, she noted. She said this should be examined before development plans are considered further.
Resident Rita Comes said she is concerned there could be indigenous artifacts and burial sites under the proposed development.
Resident Dave Cardinal, who lives nearby the project, said although he has mixed feelings about the project, overall he supports it. He said that he sees three main pros of the project: more Stanford families living in town, better management of the property if there is a development on it and the potential that the additional residents could spur more transit in town.
Resident Helen Wolter said the project would help create more market-rate housing in town and her preference is for people who work in town to secure those units, especially for teachers.
"When the average housing price (in Portola Valley) is $3 million, people (who work in town), can't afford to live here," she said.
In February, a group of more than 300 residents signed a letter to the town demanding that Stanford withdraw its proposal, mentioning 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 project.
With state housing mandates 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.
In contrast, resident David Beaver voiced support for the project in a Jan. 8 email to the Planning Commission. He noted that Stanford owns the property and in our system they have a fundamental right to use it as they see fit, within town and state laws.
"We all need more housing, affordable or un (affordable)," he wrote. "I believe the traffic impact will be minor compared to the number of cars already on Alpine Road (which I know well as someone who already has to pull out onto Alpine). I will passionately stand up against the expected 'This will change the character of our community!!!!' arguments. Every house in Portola Valley was at one time a change to the character of our community."
Portola Valley residents Susan Light and Edward Kovachy wrote to the Planning Commission in February that they were "sorry to hear of all the organized money going into stopping this project."
"We need more housing, ideally affordable housing," they said. "I believe this can work and the objections can be dealt with. I'm afraid that most of the people objecting are looking for excuses because of classic NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). Know that many of us do support this project."
John Donahoe, director of Planning and Entitlement at Stanford's Land, Buildings and Real Estate office, said the adding housing would help the university recruit and retain faculty and staff. Top-tier educators and researchers often like Stanford "until they start to look at housing prices" in the Bay Area, he said.
The homes would be painted in muted colors and be all-electric, zero net energy producing, according to a presentation prepared by Stanford for the meeting. The homes would include fire-resistive exterior materials: metal roofs, cement fiber siding and stucco.
There would be fire-resistant landscape materials, a fire-safe surface for a play area in the development and underground power lines. There would also be a 200-foot fire break buffer at the homes and a fire maintenance road would be built.
A preliminary Woodside Fire Protection District review indicates that the proposed plans, including all roadway widths, materials and circulation design details are conditionally accepted.
The remaining land, approximately 64 acres, would be preserved as open space and is not eligible for development in the future. Alpine Rock Ranch, a horse boarding facility with stables, occupies a portion of the property and would be removed as part of the proposal.
A new public recreational trail approximately 1.2 miles in length and 6 feet in width would be constructed along the western edge of the development area, connecting to the existing horse trail along Alpine Road. The entire site would be subject to a vegetation management plan to address fire safety.
The area where the projects sits has been zoned for residential use since the 1960s, according to Stanford's presentation for the meeting. Stanford first submitted a pre-application for the development in July 2019. It submitted a formal application in September 2019 and has revised its plans several times.
Commission Chair Craig Taylor noted that reviewing building projects in town can at times "seem long and arduous," but having everyone participate in that process is "what makes Portola Valley special."
This is just the beginning of the public meeting process for this project, which will include numerous meetings of the town's committees and commissions, and environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
A draft environmental impact review (EIR) should be released for review in the spring.
View of video of Wednesday's meeting here.
The next study session on the topic will come before the Architectural and Site Control Commission on Jan. 25 at 4 p.m. on Zoom. No final decisions will be made at these January meetings; there will be numerous upcoming meetings on the project as it moves through the town's commission and committee review process.