Planning for an unprecedented amount of housing, wildfire risk and tensions between some residents and town staff have been dominating politics in Portola Valley recently.
Five people will be vying for three seats on the Town Council in Portola Valley on Nov. 8: Mayor Craig Hughes, retired family physician Mary Hufty, Planning Commission members Craig Taylor and Judith Hasko, and technology consultant Dale Pfau.
Public discourse has been heated in recent months. Rebecca Flynn, who runs the town's online social network PVForum, said that a few people in town are on a moderated status "because they have shown themselves to be unable to post respectful messages," some of which have been directed at council members and staff.
In August, the Town Council approved a settlement to resolve a lawsuit against the town claiming its committee members violated the Brown Act, calling the decision an unfortunate but necessary move to stave off expensive litigation.
The town recently sent its proposed housing element to the state after being charged with designating at least 253 units of new housing over the next eight years through the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). Portola Valley has approached planning for housing using multiple strategies, including growth in the number of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in town (making up a third of the plan); planning for housing at churches and adding housing at the senior living facility, The Sequoias; opt-in rezoning, and planning for housing on town-owned lands.
The Almanac conducted interviews with the five candidates this month, asking them about all these issues and more.
Judith Hasko, 58, is an attorney working in the life sciences industry and town planning commissioner, and has lived in Portola Valley since 2007. This is her first time running for the Town Council. She's served on the Planning Commission since 2014.
Unlike the Town Council, which has already returned to in-person meetings, Hasko said she senses people are frustrated that Planning Commission meetings are still being held remotely. Staff plans to start hybrid meetings for the commission next month, said Town Manager Jeremy Dennis in an email.
She started her volunteer service to the town as a Trails and Paths Committee member and has also served on the Portola Road Corridor Plan Task Force and the Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee.
Hasko, who said she is known for her attention to detail, said she's been able to use the skills that serve her as an attorney while on the Planning Commission helping people with differing views come to a consensus.
"Different access to information leads down a path they don't want to be on, so when I've served on the Planning Commission, when people might be talking past each other, I back up and try to reframe it from a couple of different perspectives," she said.
Her top priorities if elected are:
•Safety: Living on the San Andreas Fault and in a fire prone area with soil that's not very stable are concerns for Hasko.
•Housing: "They've (regulations) gotten more complicated and numerous. ... There are state mandates that override local planning. ... The whole town felt the time pressure to respond in a way where their RHNA numbers were quadrupled where infrastructure hasn't been planned to support that."
•Increasing in-person communications.
Hasko said that some people in town feel out of the loop with town officials.
"The town was founded on community volunteering, not meeting face-to-face (to talk about these tough issues) is a big impediment," she said. "The pandemic pause was not good for the town particularly when you're dealing with these issues. ... I do think the Town Council should take very seriously the fairly consistent feedback that people want more transparency and access to decision-makers."
Hasko said she doubts the state will reject the town's draft housing element. She did question the town's need to provide a 20% buffer throughout every category of housing (from low- to above moderate-income).
She said she'll do everything she can to save Dorothy Ford Field, which is called out for potential development in the plan. She does also have concerns that it will be hard to make affiliated housing sites (at churches and schools in town) affordable.
"These are tough times (with state mandates)," she said. "You've got to look at what the next cycle is going to bring, at some point it doesn't make sense (to keep adding housing)."
Hasko's campaign website is judith2022.org.
Mary Hufty, 72, a retired family physician for Palo Alto Medical Foundation and environmentalist, last ran for council in 2020.
She founded Portola Valley Neighbors United, a volunteer-run group to amplify the voices of neighbors. It focuses on fire and seismic safety, and affordable housing, and aims to encourage informed and active participation in governance, and "influence public policies through education and advocacy," according to its website.
"This is a critical moment for Portola Valley," she said of why she's seeking office again. "We have a chance to maintain Portola Valley as a rural community. ... We used to be a pretty egalitarian, earthy crowd; it has really lost a lot of that. How can we bring back more economic diversity and diversity in general and preserve what makes the town nuts like me want to live here? If we don't do it right now it's not going to happen."
Her three top issues as a council member would be:
•Addressing the environmental crisis
•Establishing a code of ethics for the Town Council
Hufty is concerned town staff have taken over decision making rather than resident volunteers.
"I don't think the Town Council or (town) manager know it all," she said. "It's important the people in leadership roles do perform for the town as a representation of the town. ... We feel we're being managed and we're being told what to do."
Hufty said she doesn't want to see housing developed on Alpine Road scenic corridor, which is proposed in the current draft housing element. She said she would rather see housing at the town center and Spring Down Equestrian Center. She does support the affiliated housing programs.
Hufty's campaign website is maryforcouncil.org.
Craig Hughes, 48, is serving as Portola Valley's mayor this year. Hughes, a startup software company executive, first joined the Town Council in 2013.
He said he wants to finish some of the projects he's worked on during his tenure on the council like the safety and housing elements. He would be interested in looking into undergrounding more utility lines in town to help prevent fires caused by downed overhead wires.
Hughes said town officials are willing to listen to feedback. For example, they removed upzoning the Nathhorst Triangle neighborhood from its housing element plan after neighbors were outraged by the potential change.
Compared to neighboring Atherton and Woodside, Portola Valley has a much more workable plan for housing, he said. He expects the state will send relatively minor comments on changes that should be made to Portola Valley's element, whereas the other two small towns, which are relying heavily on accessory dwelling units in their drafts may be faced with a situation in which they only have a couple months to start over.
"If you have an approved housing element you won't lose local control," he said. "You need some amount of high density to achieve the housing goals."
Hughes doesn't believe views of greenery, trails and wildlife will be completely compromised by building more housing.
"If you have a 4,000-square-foot house, if it were a two-unit duplex of 2,000 square feet each, that would have no impact on trail space," he explained.
The Stanford Wedge, now Portola Terrace, housing project was the catalyst that started a lot of the tension in town, Hughes said. During the COVID-19 lockdown he noticed a lot of social stresses that have led to more conflicts, as more activities have return to in-person in recent months, the tone seems to be getting friendlier.
"There's always politics in small towns," he noted.
In terms of fire safety, arguments that Portola Valley would burn similar to the devastated town of Paradise, seem off to him. Paradise has pine trees, rugged mountainous terrain and strong summer winds.
"We're not going to have 5-mile wide, 50-foot flames of fire," he said.
In general, fire risk isn't an argument for not building any new housing in town, he said. For example, cleaning up 70 acres of unmanaged land at Portola Terrace will "dramatically improve" the fire safety of that area, he said.
Also top of mind for Hughes is figuring out how to balance the budget long term when costs are increasing faster (5 to 10% per year) than revenues (about 5% per year).
Hughes' campaign website is voteforcraig.org.
Dale Pfau, 66, technology consultant, sits on the town's Emergency Preparedness Committee. This is his first time running for Town Council.
He was embroiled in controversy in April, when the town removed him as the Wildfire Preparedness Committee's vice chair but didn't publicly explain why. He said he requested additional information about the complaint, but was told that attorney-client privilege prevented any disclosure of the nature of the complaint, the person who made it, the circumstances surrounding it, or any other information relating to it.
Pfau said he was a reluctant to run for council.
"I was very hopeful with three new council members this year there would be three qualified candidates I could endorse," he said.
He said he is frustrated the Town Council has chosen to not involve residents in the safety element.
"Why can't it accept the help of the residents?" he said. "We, the residents, know more about our town than the consultants or the staff, none of whom live in town."
If elected, Pfau has several priorities:
• Safety first: He would like to identify fire severity zones
• General plan: He wants the next update to be written by town residents
• Pushing back on RHNA: "It's state law, but it's a bad law. ... We have to obey the law but we have to coordinate with other areas in the state; we can not handle this kind of influx of housing."
He doesn't support building housing at Dorothy Ford Field. Even though there was never a deed recorded to make it an open space, a "promise is a promise" and he thinks the promise made to the family to maintain it as an open space should be kept.
He said the town should have leaned more heavily into ADUs in its housing element. He also is opposed to putting housing along Alpine Road, which he prefers remain scenic.
Pfau's campaign website is pfaufortowncouncil.com.
Craig Taylor, 68, a member of the Planning Commission for four years, is running for the Town Council for the first time.
A retired tech executive, he also sits on the town's Open Space Acquisition Committee. He formerly served on the Trails and Paths Committee and volunteers with the Bay Area Mountain Rescue unit.
Running on a platform of civility, Taylor is not in the camp of painting town staff as the "evil enemy" that are lazy. He thinks such attacks are inappropriate.
"Just being angry isn't enough," he said. "You've got to take that anger and channel it into something more productive."
He acknowledges residents are frustrated when they don't have their questions answered by town staff. He suggests forming a volunteer committee to field questions and acknowledge a query was received. The committee could also develop an FAQs page to put on the town website, he said.
His top priorities on the council would be:
•Housing: He'd like to see a marketing plan around ADUs and tracking of units. He also thinks there's a chance for generous residents to help purchase a vacant lot to build housing on.
•Wildfire: As a resident of Woodside Highlands, one of the areas in town with the highest fire risk, he's seen neighbors getting serious about making the town as fire resilient as possible. He'd like to see a parcel tax to raise additional funds to do the clearing of undergrowth. Unlike Pfau, Taylor said he is not about safety above else.
•General plan updates: "Multifamily housing was not envisioned at time of the general plan. The town needs to figure out how to incorporate it while keeping its values."
With regard to the housing element, he said the town could have relied more on ADUs like neighboring towns.
In terms of fire safety in town, at the end of the day most of the preventative measures reside with the residents, he said.
"If residents don't keep their properties in good shape there's very little you can do (to prevent fires from spreading)," he said. "A lot of that is education. Defensible zones are about making it so the fire department can save people's houses."
Taylor's campaign website is taylorforpv2022.com.
Read about the candidates' campaign finance reports in our fundraising roundup story.