The years of conversation will continue for at least a few more months in the official and unofficial circles of Portola Valley as to whether a vineyard is right for the grassy field grazed by deer at 555 Portola Road.
The Town Council on Wednesday night (Sept. 26) settled on the outlines of a path forward that will include a joint meeting soon with the Planning Commission.
This long-running and passionate debate could be said, as Conservation Committee member Judy Murphy put it, to begin and end in the general plan, which calls the privately owned field a "meadow preserve" and calls for its being "kept in a natural condition" that preserves its "existing agricultural character."
A forest may have covered this field long, long ago. Is that its natural condition? Because it's now covered in grass, does grass and hay cultivation constitute the field's agricultural character? How does the use of the word "meadow" color this debate?
The council has committed to making the language less ambiguous, in part in the hope of resolving an impasse on the Planning Commission on whether a vineyard is allowable.
The commission last January rejected the vineyard on a split vote, but agreed to allow a barn and vegetable crops, provided they are situated to minimize interruption of the view of the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve that rises from the western edge of the field. Portola Road is a major avenue in the town's scenic corridor.
The field's owners, Dr. Kirk Neely and Holly Myers, have said that a vineyard is necessary for the field's economic viability, and Dr. Neely complained further to the council on Wednesday that the application to plant crops and build a barn is already five years old, that he's being constrained to "hobby farming," and that the constraints represent an "unfair burden."
The general plan language, Councilwoman Ann Wengert said, should address the matters of preserving the views of the hills, comporting with the town's environmental values, and using the field for agriculture by its owners. "There are so many ways (the current language) doesn't help the Planning Commission," she said.
"I think it's really incumbent upon the Town Council to provide some leadership here," Dr. Neely said. "I think it's going to be a very difficult process and I'm all in favor of making (the language) as simple as possible."
Planning Commissioner Denise Gilbert noted the existing impasse on the commission and the importance of any new language opening the way for a different outcome. But Town Attorney Sandy Sloan added that because this is an issue in the general plan, the council will have the ability to break a deadlock.
"We will make it clear as to whether or not that use (as a vineyard) will be allowed," Ms. Wengert said.
Town Planner Tom Vlasic said he will be organizing a staff report for the upcoming joint meeting.