Moderate-income homes in Portola Valley? Not yet, not yet. | December 26, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - December 26, 2012

Moderate-income homes in Portola Valley? Not yet, not yet.

by Dave Boyce

In 2012, Portola Valley's Town Council, in attempting to comply with the state's evolving and complex affordable-housing mandates, turned to the music and began the dance, and not alone. Its energetically reluctant partner: a group of residents upset by a plan to put a concentration of small homes near theirs in a town with seven- and eight-figure home values.

The council signed a purchase agreement for a flat piece of land, but under protest by neighbors. The council announced plans to sell some sloped land and use the money to buy the flat land, also protested by neighbors. With a botched clean-up of pesticide residues on the flat land, the council let its agreement expire, which the neighbors liked. And the council agreed to consider an ad hoc committee to discuss affordable housing, which the neighbors also liked.

Are these steps forward, or back, or both, and how many of each? In this dance, who is leading whom?

Blue Oaks properties

The Blue Oaks properties in Portola Valley are on 2.5 acres of wooded upland at Buck Meadow Drive and Redberry Ridge. The 1996 subdivision consists of quasi-mansions in what former mayor Maryann Derwin has called "the ritziest housing development in town."

In keeping with an ordinance requiring subdivisions to set aside 15 percent of its lots for affordable housing, the corner site had been designed as four lots for eight homes affordable to people of moderate incomes.

In San Mateo County, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, a moderate income is around $86,500 for an individual and $123,600 for a family of four. Eligible buyers would work or live in Portola Valley.

Five developers familiar with the return on investment in such projects have looked at this one and not taken it on, according to Town Attorney Sandy Sloan. Town Planner Tom Vlasic has said that the sloped topography complicated plans for developing it.

Opponents claimed there is no evidence of developers' negative views, and that the town should have understood the constraints before acquiring the properties.

The town's Architectural & Site Control Commission and Planning Commission consented this fall to a council proposal to consolidate four lots into two to attract buyers. Real estate professionals determined the best price, officials said. The sale went through in December to a Blue Oaks homeowners consortium for $2.88 million.

The nursery site

The former nursery site is a flat 1.68-acre lot located on an arterial road. Sewer connections are nearby, as are "smaller single-family lots (Wyndham Drive) similar to the type of development envisioned by the Town for this property," according to a town statement.

A layer of vegetation shields the Wyndham Drive homes. To the north is Our Lady of the Wayside Roman Catholic Church; to the south, a commercial cluster that includes a restaurant, dry cleaner, feed store, saddle shop and private security service.

The neighbors complain that the density of the proposed housing would create an "urban setting" and lower their property values. They have said repeatedly that they do not oppose affordable housing, but claim the process has not been "democratic and open" and that an unfair burden is falling on their neighborhood. The town should consider second units to meet mandates, they say.

The nursery property has been the subject of negotiations since at least March 2009, when nursery owners John and Karin Wu rejected an offer from the town, Councilwoman Ann Wengert told the Almanac in August. In July 2009, the Wus received a letter of intent from Windmill School, a private preschool founded in the 1950s in Portola Valley.

In March and again in September of 2011, deals with Windmill fell apart — the first time after the school learned that the property had to be rezoned, and the second over the discovery of soil contamination.

The Town Council signed a purchase agreement in August 2012 with contingencies that included the sale of the Blue Oaks properties and San Mateo County environmental authorities approving the pesticide clean-up.

The sale netted $2.88 million, but the pesticide issue bloomed into a potentially long delay after county officials declared the clean-up inadequate. The council elected to let the contract expire.

Town officials have promised a "robust community process" going forward. With the state and region continuing to play the music, the dance will go on.