Almanac

News - November 2, 2011

Portola Valley: Should barn be allowed in 'the meadow'

by Dave Boyce

A few ambiguous phrases in the town's general plan about a scenic field of grass — commonly referred to as "the meadow" — along the scenic corridor of Portola Road became a hot potato for the members of the Portola Valley Town Council on Oct. 26. They juggled it for 15 or 20 minutes and tossed it right back to those who tossed it to them: the Planning Commission.

The key question on this privately owned field in a town known for its environmental ethic: Does ambiguity in the general plan tacitly allow or tacitly forbid the presence of a barn for agricultural purposes? How vital and perhaps even sacred is the current view, unhindered by manmade objects and prized in particular by residents of the Westridge neighborhood.

The council modified the language in May 2011, managing to add new ambiguities as they removed the old ones, and the commissioners wanted clarification.

The passage from September 1970 read: "This preserve should be kept largely open, the existing character preserved, and present agricultural uses maintained." The May 2011 version reads: "This preserve should be kept in a natural condition and the existing agricultural character preserved."

The commissioners questioned the meaning of "natural condition" and the council's intent in the phrase "existing agricultural character preserved." Would agricultural uses be historical, such as an orchard or hay field, or can a vineyard go in the field, or a vegetable garden? Can the commission determine what to allow, and can visual impact be considered a factor?

At its Oct. 26 meeting, the council agreed that the commission should use the 1970 language for the barn project, since that language was in effect in January 2011 when they considered the project, which had the effect of mooting the commission's questions about the council's intentions in May. The implicit message to the Planning Commission: interpreting ambiguous language is part of the job.

"I don't envy the Planning Commission," Councilman Steve Toben remarked.

The barn-in-the-field question is a tough one. The field introduces the roadside observer to a much loved landmark in town: the 1,900-foot peak of Windy Hill. The view is a package of cascading seasonal greens and browns. From the road, the view traverses 100 yards or so of deep grass, often grazed by deer, and rises uninterrupted to the sky, climbing ridge upon ridge of undeveloped land.

The general plan calls the field a community open space preserve. The couple who own it, Dr. Kirk Neely and Holly Myers, have applied to the Planning Commission to build a barn there, part of a plan that includes a cabana and pool, greenhouse, guest house and artist's studio, all in less visible places on their 229-acre property at 555 Portola Road. (The field is off limits for human habitation because an earthquake fault runs under a corner of it.)

The plan faired poorly at the Jan. 19 meeting of the Planning Commissioners, where it was unanimously voted down. Without the barn, at least two of the buildings might have been approved, but the couple's architect, Carter Warr, would not have that. "Our intent has not been to pursue two buildings," he said at the time. "If we wanted the two buildings, we probably could have had the two buildings a year ago."

"I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with a building in the meadow," Commissioner Alexandra Von Feldt said at the time, after noting the conflicts with Portola Road's "scenic corridor" designation and the field's seismic problems.

Dr. Neely and Ms. Myers have options — appeal the commission's decision to the council, revise their plans, file a lawsuit.

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