Narrow roads are Woodside's Gordian knot | February 29, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - February 29, 2012

Narrow roads are Woodside's Gordian knot

• Residents prefer narrow roads, but firefighters need avenues.

by Dave Boyce

The dimensions of a road can mean different things to different people. Consider the seemingly contrary views of local firefighters and residents of the neighborhood bisected by Old La Honda Road, a scenic, narrow, steep and winding road about three and a half miles long with tributary roads of similar character, some privately maintained.

The topic of Woodside's rural roads and whether they're wide enough for fire trucks came up for another extended discussion at the Feb. 14 Town Council meeting. As happened in a similar discussion in January, results were inconclusive.

Life in Woodside's rural/urban borderland offers substantial wooded privacy and substantial property values. The narrow roads, some 12 to 14 feet across, are symbolic of Woodside's rural (as distinct from suburban) character. Vehicle encounters may take a little time to resolve, but there usually is time. Besides, with private roads, residents bear the cost of making them wider. Such initiatives might involve considerable neighborly talk and compromise, not to mention the shared expense.

Firefighters have a different perspective. The woods in and around this neighborhood are thick and dry and near a major earthquake fault. In emergencies, firefighters need clear paths, immediately, to prevent conflagrations and to help people who may be desperate. At the same time and on those very same roads, fleeing residents need clear paths out.

One all-but-immovable object is the state fire code that mandates a minimum road width of 20 feet, though local fire districts have some discretion. The Woodside Fire Protection District, which serves Woodside, Portola Valley and nearby unincorporated areas, will allow 18-foot widths, and gravel on the surface to help with the rural character, Fire Marshal Denise Enea said in an interview.

With exceptions for major trees, that's about it for the district's flexibility. "We want to make sure that we can get in and people can get out," Ms. Enea said. "This isn't a subjective matter. It is not my opinion, or like I created this. It's set in stone."

"One thing about dealing with state and federal governments," mayor and builder Dave Tanner said at the council meeting. "They really don't like it when you reduce their standards."

A committee decision?

Private roads provide access to some 380 parcels in Woodside, about 15 percent overall, Town Manager Kevin Bryant said.

A private road can run "thousands and thousands of feet," Ms. Enea said. A vehicle stalemate during an emergency "would be deadly," she added. "Nobody would be able to get in or get out. We would be backing up thousands of feet."

Some of those roads are near Old La Honda Road, a neighborhood from which about 10 residents came for the council meeting. A few spoke.

Nancy Serrurier is engaged in building a home on Orchard Hill Road, which is private with four existing houses, Ms. Enea said. For a project like hers to pass muster, the Architecture and Site Review Board and the Planning Commission must vet it, and the fire marshal must sign the final building inspection. It needs an 18-foot road, Ms. Serrurier said. And since it's the Serruriers' project, widening the road will be at their expense.

(A fire district can't require a resident to widen a public road. That is a matter for the town, Ms. Enea said.)

None of the neighbors wants a wider road, Ms. Serrurier told the council. "The opportunity to really work together doesn't exist. We must submit."

Narrow private roads can stay narrow until someone builds a new home or extensively remodels one, Ms. Enea said. A major project triggers code updates all around, including the fire code as applied to the road.

If remodeling has this drawback, so may doing nothing. The fact that a road may have to be widened at the expense of one or more property owners could dampen future sales prospects and lower market values.

Resident Corinne Moesta suggested forming a working group that includes private-road residents. "We would like to work toward a fair resolution to this problem," she said.

"What is safe?" asked Mary Zverblis, who lives on Martinez Road. "There seems to be a lot of subjectivity and softness as to what is safe."

Councilman Peter Mason represents the neighborhood. The fire marshal sees road width standards "as a set of rational criteria, but I don't think that view is widely held," he said.

Twenty-foot roads throughout the town "would be horrible. It would ruin the town," Councilwoman Deborah Gordon said.

People need to sit and talk, maybe a group of two town staff, two council members, two residents and two fire district representatives, she said. "We're all working to try to do the same thing."

"We know where the residents stand on the (narrow roads) issue on Old La Honda Road, and the council is supposed to serve as impartial advocates for residents, always looking out for what is in the best interest of the entire community," Ms. Enea wrote in an email. "I think a subcommittee with town staff, council representatives and the fire district will be very productive in understanding the boundaries of modifying state code."

Ms. Gordon also suggested smaller equipment and vehicles, including fire trucks, that fit the roads. "That's the approach I would take to solve this problem," she said.

"Our fire trucks are as small as we can get with the ability to carry water to a neighborhood that has no water," Ms. Enea said when asked about truck sizes. Besides, she noted, firefighting is a regional activity. Trucks from Menlo Park and Redwood City need access as well.

Residents want to defend Woodside's rural lifestyle. "At the same time, how important is your life?" Ms. Enea asked. "There are egress codes for a reason. They are there for life safety."

Residents should be talking to their elected representatives on the fire district board, Councilman Dave Burow noted. "I think you elected these officials in the last election," he said. "We're influenced by residents. It seems like the other group (the fire board) should be influenced as well."


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