Stanford University is proposing to build 27 homes and three multifamily apartment buildings in Portola Valley at the mouth of a steep ravine along Alpine Road near Westridge Drive, both major evacuation routes.
As Woodside Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Don Bullard told The Almanac in February 2020: "The fire (district) doesn't think that (Stanford's proposed housing project) is the best location to be putting in high-density housing because of the high fire severity zone. It is a very dangerous place for fire. We should look for other areas for development that would be better, and we've suggested the town do that."
The 400-foot hillsides surrounding Stanford's property create a chimney-like effect that can intensify and uplift any fire, accelerating the spread of burning embers and flames in multiple directions simultaneously.
While Stanford proposes to reduce some vegetation, such measures alone will not abate the project's hazards. As former Woodside Fire Marshal Denise Enea wrote in September 2019: "Even with regular fuel reduction attempts, the physical vegetative nature and steep topographical properties of the large remaining undeveloped portion of the parcel, place a significant increased risk of rapid acceleration and increased intensity of any ignition in the natural landscape."
Incredibly, while Stanford promises to reduce vegetative fuels, it is simultaneously seeking to add far more man-made fuels than our ordinances allow.
The man-made fuels comprising new housing pose grave hazards. As one fire expert recently remarked, "houses are 'fuel bombs' that release exponentially more intense thermal energy over a much longer duration than vegetative wildfires." In many recent wildfires, the destruction caused by radiant heat from house-to-house ignitions far exceeded the destruction wrought by vegetative fires.
Our subdivision and zoning ordinances were carefully written to reduce such hazards. By ensuring that the square footage of housing is properly scaled to the parcels on which they are built, and that houses are well-separated from each other and situated on geologically stable soils, our ordinances serve to reduce the intensity and curtail the spread of fire.
The fire marshal has called for 100 feet of separation between Stanford's proposed houses. Our ordinances impose minimum parcel sizes, setbacks and maximum square footage allowances that result in just such separation. Stanford is asking the town to waive these important safety restrictions so it can reduce its costs by building much larger homes on much smaller parcels with far less separation between structures.
Stanford's proposed parcels are 80% smaller than the minimum parcel size our ordinances require. Its 27 houses would each have 60% more square footage/parcel than our ordinances allow. Combined, this would not only shrink the defensible space around each structure, but also increase the amount of man-made fuels added to each parcel.
Many fire experts consider building square footage a good proxy for estimating the amount of man-made fuels a building will add. By this measure, Stanford would add 270% more man-made fuels/acre of occupied land than our ordinances allow.
Further, Stanford proposes to ignore our municipal code's minimum requirements for road easement, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and parking spaces. Worse still, the project straddles a geologic fault whose seismic activity has not been investigated and is situated on alluvial soils subject to liquefaction and ground shaking.
Town residents deserve answers.
In this "very dangerous place for fire," will the reduction in parcel size and increase in man-made fuels and housing density increase fire hazards?
What lives, residences and essential infrastructure are in jeopardy if fire spreads from Stanford's site?
The lives, safety and homes of hundreds of neighbors may depend on the answers.
(Editor's note: The town's Architectural & Site Control Commission is holding a virtual study session on the project Monday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. For more information, including how to participate, visit tinyurl.com/stanfordwedge.)
Rusty Day is a Portola Valley resident.