As Portola Valley continues to struggle with getting a compliant housing element approved by Sacramento, another key member of the town’s staff has announced their resignation.
Planning Director Laura Russell, who joined the town staff in 2018, announced at a Sept. 6 Portola Valley Planning Commission meeting that it would be her last one. Russell said her final day in town hall will be Sept. 22.
“Our new town manager, Sharif, is on the case,” Russell said after announcing her resignation. “He has identified an interim planning and building director, and that is Jon Biggs. More information will be coming out to the community around this, but he is a highly qualified and very experienced planning and building director.”
Russell said that she and interim director Biggs are currently overlapping in the position to get him up to speed on town issues. Biggs has previously served as the community development director in Los Altos, as well as an interim director for the city of Gilroy.
A number of Portola Valley town staffers have left their posts over the past year, while the town is under pressure to get its housing element certified. The state’s latest rejection of the town’s draft element in July didn’t help morale.
Cities and towns that don't adopt a compliant housing element could face legal repercussions and stiff fines, and lose local control of new development projects, state officials have said. In Menlo Park, the lack of an approved housing element has opened the city to two developments that skirt the city's density and height regulations, using the builder's remedy loophole. One would replace the former Sunset Magazine headquarters along the San Francisquito Creek with high-rise buildings.
Despite the long path ahead for Portola Valley’s housing element, planning commissioners praised Russell for getting the document this far.
“I feel like this housing element is amazing, even if HCD didn’t see it exactly that way,” said Commissioner Anne Kopf-Sill. “But it could never, never have gotten this far and good without you, Laura Russell.”
Commission Chair Jon Goulden agreed, saying he was sorry to see Russell go.
“You’ve been a terrific asset for the town,” Goulden said. “Thank you very much for all you’ve done.”
Members of the public added to the positive remarks, thanking Russell for her work.
“You have been an incredibly level head, calm demeanor, intelligently addressed one of the hardest, most complex problems I’ve ever witnessed, and you’ve done it with grace,” said resident Betsy Morgenthaler. “We will really miss you, I wish you great luck where you’re headed.”
Russell said that more information should be coming soon from town staff about the transition.
“Obviously, this is all happening right now, so you can expect additional communication to come from the town manager’s office,” she said.
Portola Valley's new Town Manager Sharif Etman thanked Russell for her five years of service to the town.
"Her work ethic and integrity speaks for itself, and she always went the extra mile for the benefit of all our residents," Etman said in an emailed statement. "She has created a high standard for planning and building in San Mateo County and we wish her the best as she moves on to her next great adventure."