Portola Valley examines 'affordable housing' | July 18, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



News - July 18, 2012

Portola Valley examines 'affordable housing'

by Dave Boyce

Portola Valley Town Hall is developing a Web page addressing questions surrounding the issue of affordable housing in town. It's expected to be online this week.

A team of town officials spent two hours Wednesday night, July 11, fielding questions and comments from an audience of about 100 meeting at the Community Hall in Town Center. The goal of the meeting was to discuss the future of housing that would be affordable to people of moderate incomes. The state requires towns to address this issue.

The atmosphere at the meeting was not exactly harmonious — most of the speakers seemed to take a dim view of such housing — but there was no barrage of acrimony directed at the Town Council as there was following the town's June 25 announcement that it was negotiating to buy a 1.68-acre property where at least eight small homes — possibly a few more — would be built.

The homes would be intended for people who live or work in town — teachers, firefighters, residents with changed financial circumstances — but who have "moderate incomes" and cannot afford the multi-million dollar homes in Portola Valley. In San Mateo County, a moderate income is around $86,500 for an individual and $123,600 for a family of four.

Former councilman Steve Toben moderated the discussion and asked for audience questions. Answers came from town officials involved in the planning, legalities and negotiations for the site, a former nursery at 900 Portola Road.

The project is complicated, particularly because the town must engage the services of an affordable housing developer. Earlier plans to put the housing on four parcels in the Blue Oaks subdivision ran aground on the high cost to the developer of preparing the site. And an adequate return on a developer's investment often requires an increase in the number of homes.

Given the complexity, more meetings are likely. There will be "a robust process as we move through," Councilwoman Ann Wengert told the assembly. At this point, she added, there is no preliminary site plan and the town has no affordable housing developer as a partner.

The town must first negotiate a sale, then sell the Blue Oaks parcels to finance the project, Ms. Wengert said. "We're committed to not spending taxpayer money on this," she added.

Questions, comments

Several questions addressed the notion that the state is not serious about its mandate requiring income diversity.

Not so, said Leigh Prince, an attorney in the town attorney's law firm. There are penalties, she said. The state can:

• Force a town to include zoning for as many as 20 homes per acre.

• Halt property development by suspending the town's right to issue building and planning permits.

• Reduce the window of processing time that a town has for developing properties.

Finally, noncompliant towns are open to lawsuits by affordable housing advocates, Ms. Prince said. A loss in court can mean reimbursing the advocates for attorney fees. Pleasanton paid $2 million in attorney fees, she said.

The debate has a precedent in Portola Valley. In 2003, the council rezoned 3.6 acres near the corner of Alpine and Portola roads for 15 to 20 small homes. The zoning decision gave residents angry about higher housing densities the right to subject the rezoning to a referendum. A narrow majority overturned the decision and the houses were never built.

The new project, too, would require a zoning decision. Because zoning decisions are legislative acts, officials said, referendums are an option for voters to overturn them.

"That's a legislative act. Think about it," said resident and housing opponent Allan Brown in reference to the rezoning that would be necessary for the nursery property. Mr. Brown also suggested that the town fight to overturn the state mandate.

That's a fool's errand, said former mayor and former county planning commissioner Jon Silver.

Commenting on Portola Valley's "rural character" that residents fiercely defend, Mr. Silver noted that when he was growing up in town, teachers and ranch hands also lived there. "Ruralness means a small town social environment," he said. "That's the kind of town that's a rural town."

"We're at a fork in the road," said resident Bernie Bayuk. "To keep Portola Valley as (Mr. Silver) described it and as we all want it, we have got to guard against dense housing. ... Our obligation, all of us, is to maintain this atmosphere in Portola Valley."

"This meeting makes me very sad," said resident Tom Kelly, who also recalled the town's income diversity in the past. "It feels elitist. ... The idea that we want the firefighters and the teachers, we just don't want them in our neighborhood, it's repulsive."


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