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News - July 4, 2012

Portola Valley: Affordable housing plan faces opposition

by Dave Boyce

In an opening salvo, critics unloaded on the Portola Valley Town Council on June 27 over the town's plans to buy a property at 900 Portola Road, where homes affordable to moderate-income people would be built.

The packed council meeting included opponents of the housing plan and advocates for Windmill School, a private preschool that has been eyeing the site for a permanent home.

Since mid-2010, the school, the property owners and the town have been haggling over the 1.68-acre parcel that for 51 years had been Al's Nursery. The nursery closed in March 2011.

The town has been negotiating to buy the property with intent of building eight homes affordable to people who work in Portola Valley. That plan might help the town comply with a state mandate that requires cities and towns to provide for below-market-rate housing. The town would finance the project by selling two parcels it owns in the expensive Blue Oaks subdivision.

Opponents spoke during the open-microphone period at the start of the meeting. Speakers for the school and against the housing were evenly represented. No one spoke up for the housing. Since the matter was not on the formal agenda, the council could not comment.

Windmill, a renter since its founding in the 1950s near the defunct windmill on Portola Road, now rents space at the Alpine Hills Tennis & Swimming Club at 4139 Portola Road.

Windmill "(doesn't) have a long-term future" at Alpine Hills, resident Elizabeth Cushman said she's been told. The school embodies "a sense of community that really is as the root of what Portola Valley stands for," she said. Should the town buy the property, she suggested it would be a Pyrrhic victory. "You'll lose the broader war of public opinion."

Monika Cheney, a resident and co-chair of Windmill's board, complained that the town should have phoned the school community rather than releasing a statement. "We're extremely disheartened and really disappointed," she said. "You can't place enough importance on the value of this school."

"It's unbelievable to me that you have taken this action," resident Gaja Frampton told the council. "This is my first experience with you and it's terrible. I urge you, please, please, urge you to reconsider purchasing Al's Nursery."

A community meeting is set for Wednesday, July 11, to talk about the town's plans for the property. Mayor Derwin, who noted that her two sons attended Windmill, offered school backers a separate meeting to discuss a home for the school, but the audience greeted it with scattered jeers.

Earlier defeat

The town had an earlier affordable housing plan that was rejected by voters. In 2003, the council rezoned 3.6 acres near the corner of Alpine and Portola roads group for 15 to 20 small homes. Residents angry about higher housing densities and their presumed effects on property values put a referendum on the ballot, and a narrow majority overturned the zoning decision.

In a statement with regard to the new affordable housing plan, Mayor Derwin said: "With this parcel, we finally have the opportunity to provide housing to people who work in our community and love Portola Valley but can't afford to live here."

At the June 27 meeting, resident Bernie Bayuk said high-density housing does not belong in Portola Valley. "It's unusual to be able to live where you work," he said. "Once you set a precedent permitting high density housing in Portola Valley, you will have planted a seed."

"Maybe you have to do it," resident Allan Brown said, "but I'm not sure that time wouldn't be better spent trying to change that (affordable housing) law."

"From a neighborhood standpoint, the proposal will be a drastic change in density," said resident Bud Eisberg, who lives close by on Wyndham Drive. "Why not build the units in Blue Oaks?"

When Mark Bronder, a 22-year resident of Wyndham Drive, rose to speak, unlike the other speakers he turned away from the council for half a minute to cheerily identify audience members who had lived in Portola Valley longer than he had. "I'm a newbie," he said.

"I don't want high-density housing in this town, especially not near me," Mr. Bronder said, turning his attention to the council. "Sounds to me like you guys got out-negotiated by Blue Oaks and threw us under the bus. You know, that's going to change the character of." He broke off, then continued: "Your job is to serve us and keep the character of the town!"

Mr. Bronder took a step or two toward the council. "We're ready to get legal counsel," he said, "if everybody's ready to chip in."


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