New Portola Valley mayor embraces thoughtful change | January 15, 2020 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - January 15, 2020

New Portola Valley mayor embraces thoughtful change

by Rick Radin

As a professional energy consultant, new Portola Valley Mayor Jeff Aalfs is well-positioned to help write new rules to make homes more energy-efficient, one of the Town Council's objectives for 2020.

The goal is for all new construction projects and major remodels to use recycled materials, all-electric appliances and electric space heating, to keep Portola Valley in the forefront of innovation in energy conservation.

"This is what all building is going to look like in the future," Aalfs said in a phone interview.

Requiring more energy efficiency in new construction is one of several initiatives the Town Council is planning for in 2020, according to a list of priorities published by the town.

Other plans include continuing to work on a long-term goal of providing affordable housing, preparing the community for wildfires and other emergencies, making streets and roads safer for pedestrians and encouraging more volunteering, according to the priority list.

The need to build affordable housing has been a hot topic in Portola Valley, generating a conflict between a desire of many residents to maintain the community's rural feel and emerging state regulations requiring more lower-priced housing units.

A Stanford University proposal to build 27 single-family homes, along with 12 affordable rental units, is a case in point. The proposed project, known as the Stanford Wedge, would undoubtedly increase traffic along two-lane Alpine Road, the main route in and out town, and would be much denser than any other housing that currently exists.

Aalfs said the project will get a thorough review by the Planning Commission, the Architectural and Site Control Commission and the Town Council.

"There's going to be a very public discussion of the project," Aalfs said. "A lot of details have to be ironed out about how to proceed and what it looks like, and not all the objections are going to be overcome."

Portola Valley has also been working on identifying property that it owns that could be used for affordable housing, but an ad hoc committee formed to do an inventory found only one small site at the Town Center where there would be few barriers to development.

The Town Council dismissed a potential site next to a vernal pool known as the Frog Pond in the face of strong community objections, and another parcel across Los Trancos Road from the Blue Oaks subdivision was identified as having potential, but the location "may be too remote," among other barriers, Aalfs said.

"You would be putting a lot of housing on a very small road," which could create traffic problems or impede escape during an emergency, he added.

Portola Valley formed an ad hoc committee last March to make recommendations about how to deal with the threat of wildfires. The committee reported its findings in December.

The suggestions included adding regulations banning wood shake roofs and wood decks to building codes and doing more evacuation planning before the next fire season, Aalfs said.

"We've also been mapping trees, fire hazards and vegetation along our main roads," he said. "We need to clear some of the more hazardous things so fire doesn't block our escape routes."

Portola Valley has produced a pedestrian safety plan that will be implemented beginning this year. Upgrades, including adding traffic warning lights, road markings and other measures will be completed as money is available, he said.

"The spending will have to be budgeted," Aalfs said. "Some projects are big enough that we will need to get grants to pay for them."

Portola Valley depends on volunteers to do the work that is sometimes done by paid staff in other, larger communities.

Although the town currently has plenty of people willing to step up, Aalfs said, he thinks it's important to try to get younger people involved to encourage fresh ideas.

Environmental focus

Aalfs serves as chairman of the board for Peninsula Clean Energy, the alternative energy provider for San Mateo County, and said the experience has "influenced my thinking around sustainability."

He wants to investigate putting a microgrid at Town Center composed of solar panels and batteries that would enable Town Hall to function during an extended power shutoff .

The center is currently served by a diesel backup generator that could only be used for a limited period of time, he said.

A microgrid "is something that we have considered in the past and would be a very timely thing to consider again," he said, referencing PG&E's fire-prevention power blackouts in 2019.

Aalfs said he is also intrigued by the idea promoted by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo of a public takeover of PG&E, and would like to see Portola Valley "weigh in on the idea and possibly support it."

The move would put the public more in control of "cleaning up" the utility's electrical grid and eliminate the need to make a profit to pay dividends to shareholders, he said.

"Customers are on the hook for PG&E's costs as it stands," Aalfs said. "If we could turn PG&E into a cooperative, run by its customers, that would be a benefit."


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