A pause in Portola Valley's affordable housing plans | December 19, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



News - December 19, 2012

A pause in Portola Valley's affordable housing plans

• Council to let contract expire for purchase of 900 Portola Road.

by Dave Boyce

Applause from a group of maybe 10 Portola Valley residents greeted a late-night decision Dec. 12 by the Town Council to allow the expiration of a contract to acquire a former plant nursery at 900 Portola Road. By agreeing not to extend the contract, the council has sidelined — but not discarded — a proposal to buy the property to address a state mandate that requires communities to create zoning for homes affordable to people of moderate incomes.

The council also announced plans to form an ad hoc committee in January to examine the issue of affordable housing in the community. The site is "not necessarily" off the table, Mayor John Richards told the Almanac. "We're trying to leave the door open in case they manage to get it cleaned up in time," but the results of the ad hoc committee will be an important factor, he added.

The town's purchase agreement for 900 Portola Road included a stipulation that San Mateo County environmental authorities provide a letter, before Dec. 19, attesting to the proper clean-up of pesticide residues in the ground. That deadline faded into insignificance after a Nov. 6 letter in which county officials declared the clean-up so far to be inadequate and gave the environmental consulting firm until May 2013 to come up with a detailed work plan. The council had not yet acted on that news.

Town Hall is facing a 2013 deadline to prepare the next affordable housing update to its general plan; the toxic clean-up at 900 Portola Road would have complicated that effort, Mayor Richards said.

The topic of affordable housing is located in a chapter called the housing element, which must be certified every seven or eight years. To be certified, it needs an up-to-date quota for low- and moderate-income homes. The homes need not be built, but the law specifies sanctions a judge can impose if a city or town is sued over its inaction.

The council reported its decision after a closed session of about 45 minutes. The open meeting that preceded it included a packed audience and a public hearing when neighbors of 900 Portola Road aired their negative opinions of the council's proposal. The council had acted hastily, they said, and in secret, complaints that are at odds with the record.

In a related matter, a unanimous council voted to sell two properties that had been intended for affordable housing. Developers cited topographic complexity among the problems mitigating against moderate-income homes there, council members said; some project opponents disagreed. The council had been planning to use the $2.88 million in proceeds to buy 900 Portola Road, but now the money will be banked in a fund to be used to address affordable housing mandates.

Single-family homes are a tradition in Portola Valley. Homeowners on Wyndham Drive say they do not oppose affordable housing in town, but that building it at nearby 900 Portola Road could lower their property values. In response, Town Attorney Sandy Sloan said she has seen data showing that not to be the case for moderate-income housing.

Opponents suggest that state mandates be met with second units, a common practice for very-low and low-income housing. But the state requires zoning for "a variety of housing types, including multi-family," state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) spokesman Colin Parent told the Almanac.

In San Mateo County, according to the HCD, a moderate income is around $86,500 for an individual and $123,600 for a family of four. Prices for moderate-income homes are adjusted to reflect the incomes of the buyers, Town Planner Tom Vlasic said.

Public comment

Public comment on the proposal reflected pro and con arguments among the first several speakers, but most speakers opposed it, many of them residents of Wyndham Drive.

With this project and one nearby in the planning stage for five small homes for seniors, Resident Mark Bronder said that he and his neighbors "will no longer live in the real Portola Valley."

Resident Bud Eisberg: "Our neighborhood became concerned when we could see that the burden was going to fall on us. We're concerned, as any one of you would be."

The Wyndham Drive community is a "model of diversity," resident Louis Ebner said, adding that he preferred Windmill School (a private preschool) at the site "because it's really what Al (of Al's Nursery) would have preferred."

The council took on too much, he added. "Let us share the responsibility for making these decisions. ... You don't have to operate behind closed doors. ... Do the right thing: (commission a) common sense economic feasibility study for the use of 900 Portola Road and let us see it."

Finding a middle ground, Annaloy Nickum, a renter since 1976, suggested matching the number of small homes to the maximum size of a single-family home on the 1.68-acre property.

In support, former mayor George Comstock asked the council to consider the views of Jesus, "an outstanding teacher of mankind."

Portola Valley schools are good, resident Andy Browne said, but expanding the demographics to include people of moderate incomes would help students compete in the "real world."

"I think there's no basis to things that have been said that you haven't acted in an open and public spirited way," said former mayor Jon Silver.