Almanac

News - January 26, 2011

'No' to barn in Portola Valley meadow

by Dave Boyce

In a unanimous decision, the five-member Portola Valley Planning Commission has voted down a proposal that could have placed a barn in the meadow that sits below Windy Hill along the west side of Portola Road.

The Jan. 19 decision, which rejected a proposal for five new buildings on the 229-acre property at 555 Portola Road, is likely to be appealed to the Town Council, project architect Carter Warr told the commission.

In addition to the barn, the proposal by residents Dr. Kirk Neely and Holly Myers includes a cabana and pool, a greenhouse, a guest house and an artist's studio. If appealed, the council would consider the project anew — that is, without reference to the many earlier discussions at the Planning and the Architecture & Site Control commissions.

The meadow sits at the foot of a landscape that rises uninterrupted in ridges of grass and trees to the 1,900-foot peak of Windy Hill, a familiar landmark of Portola Valley.

The town's general plan specifically mentions the meadow. Portola Road is "the most 'urban' of the scenic roadways," the plan says. "It is nevertheless a road of more than usual natural beauty, running through what may be considered the heart of the town ... the meadow, orchards, stables and properties. Special consideration should be given to building size, design and setbacks along this road."

Residents agreed, most notably the residents of Westridge, a neighborhood that sits opposite and above the meadow on the other side of Portola Road and with elevated views of the Windy Hill vista.

"We do not believe the review process to date or the recommended bases for action on the pending application conform with the requirements of our town ordinances and general plan," said Rusty Day, chair of the Westridge Architectural Supervising Committee, in a Jan. 18 letter to the commission.

The proposal would expand floor area on the property beyond the town's 10,000 square foot limit and would therefore require the Planning Commission to issue a conditional use permit. Such a permit gives the commission the right to periodically review a property owner's adherence to permit specifications.

In a Jan. 12 staff report, town Planner Tom Vlasic noted that the commission could make the necessary findings and move ahead with the cabana and greenhouse. The rest of the project would need more work by both the client and the commission, Mr. Vlasic said at the meeting.

Mr. Warr said that whether the commission approved the cabana and the greenhouse or rejected the proposal as a whole, the project would be appealed. "Our intent has not been to pursue two buildings," he said. "If we wanted the two buildings, we probably could have had the two buildings a year ago."

In discussion before their vote, the commissioners expressed concern about the un-clustered distribution of the proposed buildings, but the barn was a focus. (In staff reports, the structure is referred to as an agricultural building but "barn" is acceptable, Planning Manager Leslie Lambert told The Almanac.)

The vista that includes the meadow, said Commissioner Leah Zaffaroni, has "scenic value and the catalyzing power of the winter hillsides."

"I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with a building in the meadow," said Commissioner Alexandra Von Feldt, after noting its conflicts with the "scenic corridor" citation in the general plan and its proximity to an earthquake fault.

In September, the Town Council amended the zoning ordinance to take into account updated geologic maps. The council discussion addressed a letter from Dr. Neely and Ms. Myers in which the couple claimed to have evidence contradicting assertions that a fault trace runs through the meadow, according to minutes of the meeting.

Dr. Neely and Ms. Myers also asserted in the letter that the town has an overly severe size limit of 120 square feet for structures located in a fault zone but not intended for human habitation, the minutes show.

George Mader, a planning consultant with extensive geological credentials in addition to having been the town planner for many years, told the council that the Planning Commission had wrestled with this size limit and concluded that people might be in these structures at times and that parcels along the San Andreas fault tend to be large enough so that these buildings can be placed away from fault zones.

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