Fears about the loss of horse stables and scenic corridors, along with increased wildfire risk were all part of an hours-long discussion Wednesday, July 13, in Portola Valley before the Town Council approved its draft housing element.
The draft will be sent to the state, pending revisions the council requested to address concerns about displacement of the Isola Riding Academy, and adding limitations to the opt-in rezoning program to limit projects to four units per site (rather than four units per acre) and requiring a discretionary review process.
The town is assigned to plan for 253 new units in the 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), compared to just 64 last cycle.
Jeremy Levine, a local housing advocate and policy manager for the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, said Portola Valley's plan is the only one of the nine draft housing elements in the county his organization recommends for certification.
He believes the town, which has hosted over a dozen meetings on the topic, made a good faith effort to meet the housing needs of the community. He noted that the children of locals, teachers, blue-collar workers and others are being priced out of Portola Valley — where the average home now sells for $4 million — and said the housing plan is a good start toward making the town more inclusive.
Councilman Jeff Aalfs said cities across the state have seen the same pattern that has limited housing development in California.
"At the end of the day we're elected officials, if we get 50 people adamantly opposed to it and five or 10 potentially supporting it, we're probably not going to do it, and every jurisdiction is like that," he said. "The result is we're very, very short of housing." The difference during this housing cycle is that the state Legislature has made housing a priority and is being stricter on how towns plan for housing, he said.
He also noted that town staff and the Ad Hoc Housing Committee made a series of compromises to create the best housing element possible.
Isola Riding Academy at Glenoaks Equestrian Center
The town received a number of written comments from people concerned about the 29 units of housing designated at the Glenoaks site at 3639 Alpine Road, which is home to the Isola Riding Academy. Because of this feedback, the Town Council asked staff to follow up with the property owner and tenant to look into options for maintaining horse operations.
"Woodside and Portola Valley are some of the last equestrian bastions in the Silicon Valley area," Brigitte Hajos said in a June 16 email to the town. "They are horse land and closing still more horse riding facilities pushes horses and equestrians out of the valley. Too many public riding facilities have been closed and we are losing precious opportunities to save the sport and these precious animals. When riding facilities close, horses are sold off. Many are put down or end up in slaughterhouses if there are no imminent buyers. Horses are majestic creatures with therapeutic powers far beyond most people's understanding."
After residents of the Nathhorst Triangle area vehemently opposed plans to "upzone" the density of housing in their neighborhood in an earlier iteration of the draft element, the town decided to create an opt-in zoning program would allow single-family residential parcels 1 acre or greater to rezone to allow up to four dwelling units per acre. The town added in a clause that the owner opting for rezoning has to live on-site to prevent developers from buying up land.
But some residents expressed their concerns to the town that upzoning "creates powerful economic incentives to fundamentally alter" the environment and wildland habitats of Portola Valley.
Resident Sylvia Thompson told the town on June 23 that the program allows developers to profit from urbanization and "harnesses fear and greed to encourage rapid development."
"Neighbors are forced into an economic prisoner's dilemma: the first up-zoner in a neighborhood reaps a financial windfall at nearby property owners' expense," she wrote. "The only way to reclaim some of the value lost to the new high-density project next door is also to up-zone and move out, ideally before someone else does. The ensuing race for the exits depresses land values, benefiting developers and cascading into the sort of overnight over-development seen in other formerly pristine places."
On Wednesday, the council considered removing the opt-in program and adding a small number of Senate Bill 9 units, but staff advised that they probably won’t be financially viable for residents to through this program (SB 9 units are limited to 800 square feet in size in town). The state's so-called duplex law that took effect in January requires local agencies to grant ministerial approval to certain lot splits and up to two primary units on each resulting lot, with 4-foot side and rear setbacks.
Ford Field and Ladera Church sites
The council decided that planning for Dorothy Ford Field and the Ladera Church property will take place together about two years into the 2023-31 cycle. This will allow the town to first evaluate how the plan's implementation is progressing.
In a June 16 email to the town, Ford's widow Susan Ford Dorsey, said her husband gave the land under two conditions: the land remains as open space and that the park be named after his mother, Dorothy B. Ford.
"I believe that the town would be breaking that promise to him and our family by developing it," she said. "That land is a place of solace for our community and it needs to be kept intact. Like every family in our community, our family has benefited from the beauty and recreation afforded by the park."
While both Susan Ford Dorsey and many residents have stated the town has a moral obligation to keep the property in open space, but other than the two deed restrictions governing the baseball field which expire in 2031, there is no legal impediment to changing the use of the open space portion of the site.
Town staff confirmed that there is not a proposal to build housing over the Ford Field baseball diamond. There may be an opportunity to rearrange the uses at the site and improve the baseball facilities with the overall project.
Staff has had preliminary conversations with a nonprofit affordable housing developer about the feasibility of developing the site. For the purposes of financing and operations, affordable housing developers typically require approximately 50 units to make these types of projects feasible.