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Guest Opinion: Portola Valley Town Council's housing plan ignores fire safety

Almanac file photo

California's Constitution clearly states, "The protection of the public safety is the first responsibility of local government." Sadly, our Town Council is ignoring this fundamental responsibility.

In Portola Valley, we live amidst numerous geologic faults, steep hills and hazardous ravines covered with tinder-dry grasslands, trees and brush. Increasingly hot, dry weather conditions compound our severe fire hazards.

The devastating fires that have plagued California over the past decade underscore the pressing need to address the extreme wildfire risks we all confront. We must promote building and development practices that don't allow wildfires to destroy entire communities. We must organize our residents and schools to evacuate safely when fires do occur. We must improve our evacuation routes and capacity, upgrade our unsafe, unreliable power grid, upgrade our water supply system and fix our erratic communications infrastructure. Urgent, townwide action is needed.

Instead, the current Town Council is rushing to add over 250 new housing units in town with no regard for the impact of such massive development on our public safety, fiscal integrity or future town character. How will such dense, new development impact the risk of wildfire spread throughout our neighborhoods? How will it impact our ability to evacuate our homes and schools? What improvements and expansion of existing roads, water supply, sewage, communications and power infrastructure will be needed? What additional school, fire suppression and emergency response resources must be added? Your taxes will likely go up to pay for all of this.

A responsible Town Council must address and answer these fundamental questions first, before rushing ahead to authorize vast new development without regard to its risk, cost and impact.

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Our Town Council could have acted to protect us against unsafe development. They could have followed the state's long-standing fire safety mandates and designated the many hazardous areas of town that require minimal development safeguards. They could have listened to the firefighting professionals and residents who have long called for a comprehensive, townwide plan and program to evacuate our schools and our families. And they could have engaged and empowered our Town committees and resident volunteers to prioritize and tackle the extensive infrastructure improvements our Town desperately needs. But our current Town Council has taken none of these critical steps.

We can create safe new housing -- affordable housing – without carelessly jeopardizing our safety or destroying the character of our community. We can implement and fulfill our general plan's most important long-term goals and policies without subordinating all of them to increased housing alone. And we can engage and empower our residents to help our town protect public safety while keeping with the foundational principles of our community.

Together, let's elect and empower a new Town Council that will engage our residents constructively, build safe and affordable housing where it makes sense, and uphold the community development principles that have made Portola Valley a wonderful place to live.

Ellen Vernazza is a 35-year Portola Valley resident and a member of the organization Our Future Together

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Guest Opinion: Portola Valley Town Council's housing plan ignores fire safety

by Ellen Vernazza /

Uploaded: Sat, Aug 27, 2022, 8:56 am

California's Constitution clearly states, "The protection of the public safety is the first responsibility of local government." Sadly, our Town Council is ignoring this fundamental responsibility.

In Portola Valley, we live amidst numerous geologic faults, steep hills and hazardous ravines covered with tinder-dry grasslands, trees and brush. Increasingly hot, dry weather conditions compound our severe fire hazards.

The devastating fires that have plagued California over the past decade underscore the pressing need to address the extreme wildfire risks we all confront. We must promote building and development practices that don't allow wildfires to destroy entire communities. We must organize our residents and schools to evacuate safely when fires do occur. We must improve our evacuation routes and capacity, upgrade our unsafe, unreliable power grid, upgrade our water supply system and fix our erratic communications infrastructure. Urgent, townwide action is needed.

Instead, the current Town Council is rushing to add over 250 new housing units in town with no regard for the impact of such massive development on our public safety, fiscal integrity or future town character. How will such dense, new development impact the risk of wildfire spread throughout our neighborhoods? How will it impact our ability to evacuate our homes and schools? What improvements and expansion of existing roads, water supply, sewage, communications and power infrastructure will be needed? What additional school, fire suppression and emergency response resources must be added? Your taxes will likely go up to pay for all of this.

A responsible Town Council must address and answer these fundamental questions first, before rushing ahead to authorize vast new development without regard to its risk, cost and impact.

Our Town Council could have acted to protect us against unsafe development. They could have followed the state's long-standing fire safety mandates and designated the many hazardous areas of town that require minimal development safeguards. They could have listened to the firefighting professionals and residents who have long called for a comprehensive, townwide plan and program to evacuate our schools and our families. And they could have engaged and empowered our Town committees and resident volunteers to prioritize and tackle the extensive infrastructure improvements our Town desperately needs. But our current Town Council has taken none of these critical steps.

We can create safe new housing -- affordable housing – without carelessly jeopardizing our safety or destroying the character of our community. We can implement and fulfill our general plan's most important long-term goals and policies without subordinating all of them to increased housing alone. And we can engage and empower our residents to help our town protect public safety while keeping with the foundational principles of our community.

Together, let's elect and empower a new Town Council that will engage our residents constructively, build safe and affordable housing where it makes sense, and uphold the community development principles that have made Portola Valley a wonderful place to live.

Ellen Vernazza is a 35-year Portola Valley resident and a member of the organization Our Future Together

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