Remembering George Mader and the role of outsiders in Portola Valley | September 23, 2022 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - September 23, 2022

Remembering George Mader and the role of outsiders in Portola Valley

by Jon Silver

I was saddened, as were so many, to hear of the recent death of George Mader, Portola Valley's longtime and trailblazing Town Planner.

But more than anything, I cannot help but reflect on George's life with happiness and inspiration.

George lived well into his nineties, had a wonderful family, a distinguished career and contributed immensely to the betterment of the broader community and the world. George's contributions as a land use planner were statewide, and in fact nation and worldwide, in scope. George served as chair of the California Seismic Safety Commission, and consulted about geologically safe building practices in places as disparate as Italy and China. As a Stanford professor and mentor to many younger planners, his legacy and influence will long outlive him. His was indeed a long life well lived.

In 1975 as a neophyte community activist, I was fortunate to meet and learn from him, and in time came to count him as a friend.

However, there is something occurring now that is heartbreaking. All too many who today claim to venerate the Portola Valley General Plan and its history seem to have so little actual knowledge of the course of that history, the ongoing development of the general plan and the role that professionals such as George Mader played in all of this.

George after all was a hired consultant who did not live in the town of Portola Valley, as were all others in his firm who gave invaluable assistance to our town over many years. The same is true of almost all of our town geologists and other professional experts, who have provided essential knowledge and guidance over the 58 years of our town's existence.

Recently an aspiring candidate for our Town Council, Dale Pfau, was quoted in the Almanac as saying "The general plan was originally written by resident volunteers," whereas now staff and consultants "dominate" our town process. Another candidate, Mary Hufty, criticized the role played by "non-resident ... town staff." Both of these comments are badly disconnected from the actual reality of both Portola Valley's history and its present.

Probably no one person played a greater role in developing Portola Valley's general plan than George Mader, a paid consultant who did not live in our town. Even though Mader's home was close by in Ladera, it was not within the town.

While it is true that Portola Valley has benefited enormously from 1964 until today from many dedicated and selfless volunteers, what we have accomplished as a community has only been made possible by those volunteers working synergistically with top-flight experts, who were consultants and dedicated town employees, very few of which had the good fortune to live in our town.

Also, contrary to what some seem to believe, Portola Valley's general plan wasn't gifted from on high by a few wise town founders in 1964 in its current form. As laudable as our founders were, our original General Plan would have allowed Portola Valley to grow to more than twice its current size. This only changed in stages over many years as our general plan was improved. The work that brought this about was made possible by non-resident consultants like George Mader, without whose expertise our general plan and associated policies and ordinances never would have passed legal muster.

Among the groundbreaking changes developed by George Mader and other experts were slope-density zoning, fault zone setbacks, and avoidance of development on landslide-prone lands. These changes not only protected the public health, safety, and welfare — they also drastically reduced the amount of development allowed in Portola Valley

To hear this history and fine tradition denied by those who weren't here to witness it and haven't bothered to learn about it is sad, and indeed it is a tragedy.

These "outside consultants" and town employees who don't live in Portola Valley are now, as a group, derided for not being home-grown. If we in Portola Valley become so parochial and nativist in our perspective, it not only violates a proud tradition, it does not bode well for our future.

At a time when our town is being tested as never before by onerous state requirements to provide affordable housing, we cannot afford to have a "residency" requirement determine which experts we are willing to listen to. We must not shoot the messenger simply because we don't like the news she bears.

We've seen the disastrous consequences of ignoring expert advice on a national and international level with regard to climate change, a pandemic, and wacky conspiracy theories about who won our last presidential election, among so many other things. If we allow this type of narrow and non-fact-based thinking to infect our local democratic process, our future will indeed be bleak.

Jon Silver is a former Portola Valley Mayor and San Mateo County Planning Commissioner.


Posted by Danna Breen
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Sep 24, 2022 at 4:49 pm

Danna Breen is a registered user.

I was going to let this go, but I feel challenged to respond since Dale Pfau’s comment was my responsibility and my fault. We were having a discussion about the General Plan and I told him that residents had always been involved with writing and changes to the plan, but I neglected to say that part of the General plan team team was of course the venerable George Mader and many of his firm who worked for forty years as planners for the town. George lived less than 100 yards from the town boundary and certainly always was able to look through the Portola Valley lens, and so did Tom Vlasic see the town very clearly. George and Tom were simply gifted.
What was wonderous was their deep appreciation for our self governance and their willingness to respect and and aide that.
Our General Plan is a gorgeous document and I hope as many of you try to read it as possible. What town wants to protect dark skies so the residents will see the stars at night?
Going forward, I hope the new town council will appoint a General Plan committee of residents to always be prepared to respond to any proposed changes to the plan. And I think our future will be very positive and bright.

Posted by Jon Silver
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Sep 25, 2022 at 2:32 am

Jon Silver is a registered user.

Danna -- you are in no way responsible for what a grown man said in his statement to a reporter for the Almanac. If Dale Pfau wishes to govern he must take responsibility for himself.

Nor are you responsible for similar inaccurate statements made by supporters of Portola Valley's new Big Money $$$ 501c PAC, a group that for the first time ever will attempt to "buy" our Council election for a sum in the neighborhood of $50,000 -- an obscene and ridiculous amount for a Town our size.

We have seen the corrosive effects of Big Money on our national and statewide governance. It's a shame to bring it to our small town.

PV residents of course should be involved in a hands on way with our Town's planning process. They always have, and always will be.

But citizen volunteers need the assistance, guidance and advice of the best experts available. Such experts need be selected for their excellence, not based on how many "yards" they live from our Town's boundary.

Your friend,

Jon Silver

Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 25, 2022 at 7:56 am

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"What town wants to protect dark skies so the residents will see the stars at night?"

Los Altos Hills and Woodside are two that come immediately to mind. There are others.

Posted by Jon Silver
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Sep 25, 2022 at 3:38 pm

Jon Silver is a registered user.

Portola Valley does too. Many good volunteers and professional staff, including George Mader an his colleagues contributed to this as well.

Jon Silver

Posted by Martha McGuire
a resident of another community
on Sep 26, 2022 at 8:31 am

Martha McGuire is a registered user.

[Comment removed at poster's request]

Posted by Jon Silver
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Sep 26, 2022 at 3:36 pm

Jon Silver is a registered user.

Martha -- nothing I said was in anyway disrespectful of George Mader. He was my friend, and he will always be one of my heroes.

What is disrespectful is to forget his legacy and deny his tremendous contributions, as all too many today are doing.

Even more than that it is destructive to attack, and leave by the wayside, the type of informed, data-driven, and nuanced knowledge-based decision-making which George modeled and championed throughout his life.

While I never want to presume to speak for the dead, I will share that George told me in recent years that he found the contemporary rise of fear-based nativist attitudes, and the injection of so-called “alternate facts” into our body politic very troubling.

I was privileged to be able to keep in touch with George Mader over the years. You see, he actually was my valued friend.


Jon Silver

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