Atherton threatens to sue Menlo, Facebook | May 23, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - May 23, 2012

Atherton threatens to sue Menlo, Facebook

by Barbara Wood

Atherton has threatened to sue Menlo Park and Facebook to get Facebook to pay at least part of the cost of widening Marsh Road at Middlefield Road, but some Atherton residents say that if the town does that, they'll join the opposing side to fight their town to keep their street as it is.

The matter came to light at the May 16 Atherton City Council meeting, when former long-time council member Malcolm Dudley urged the council to leave Marsh Road as two lanes. Mr. Dudley said that widening Marsh Road would not only destroy its scenic qualities, but that "widening streets leads to increased volume and traffic speed. Atherton residents successfully fought the battle to preserve two-lane streets 35 years ago, and must remain vigilant," he said, reading from a several-page document he presented to the council.

"I agree with Malcolm that if you build it they will come," said Larry Sweeney, a member of the Atherton transportation committee. He said the widening of Marsh Road has never come before the committee, and that "I strongly support the idea of keeping as much of a rural atmosphere in Atherton as we can."

Instead of fighting with Facebook, Mr. Dudley suggested a partnership that could bring benefits to Atherton. "There is an opportunity to work with Facebook," he said, suggesting that Facebook could help the town reopen its train station by offering to shuttle employees from the station to its new Menlo Park headquarters.

The matter was on the agenda as "Status of Facebook project and city of Menlo Park response to issues and concerns raised by the town of Atherton." But Mayor Bill Widmer announced the update would take place in a closed session "because this may involve potential litigation."

A letter included in the background information on the item, from acting city manager Theresa DellaSanta, addressed to Menlo Park mayor Kirsten Keith and city manager Alex McIntyre and dated April 26, contains the lawsuit threat.

"The Town of Atherton ... must explore all options, including legal challenges ... to effect a more reasonable and responsible position by Facebook and the City of Menlo Park," the letter says. The letter identifies improvements sought by Atherton. "The Town of Atherton prepared schematic designs of transportation improvements we believe necessary to properly mitigate traffic impacts from Facebook and other significant developments. ... Identified improvements include the construction of an additional traffic lane approximately 600 feet in length on Marsh Road beginning at the intersection with Middlefield. Marsh Road will be widened to the south which will require the covering of the Atherton Channel," the letter says. It also says the project could involve "potentially significant tree removal."

In the environmental report on the Facebook project, the intersection at Middlefield and Marsh Road is pointed out as an intersection that could feel a significant impact if Facebook fully builds out both its current campus and the land it owns on Constitution Drive, both in Menlo Park. It suggests that Facebook pay about 30 percent of the cost for improvements at the Middlefield and Marsh roads intersection, adding another turning lane westbound on Middlefield and a merging lane northbound on Marsh.

But Atherton argues, in the April 26 letter from Ms. DellaSanta, that the suggested improvements can't be made because they are not in the existing road right-of-way, and suggests more extensive improvements on Marsh Road instead.

After the council members returned to open session, Mayor Widmer said that there was "no reportable action associated with this item" from the closed session, which would indicate that no decision to sue had been made. He said that council members Jim Dobbie and Elizabeth Lewis will meet with Menlo Park officials on Tuesday, May 22, to discuss the issue.

Mr. Dudley warned the council members that if Atherton sues Menlo Park and Facebook to get Marsh Road widened, residents will fight the town on the opposing side of the lawsuit. "Everyone I've talked to is very concerned," he said. "We don't want to have this happening to our community."

Mr. Dudley's statement to the council included copies of a mailing from 1977 when Atherton residents previously fought the widening of Marsh Road. The flier included the signatures of 1,000 Atherton residents against a four-lane Marsh Road, which was part of a proposal that would have brought Highway 84 traffic through Atherton from the Dumbarton Bridge.

At least one of Facebook's attorneys was seen in the audience at the May 17 meeting.


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