Guest opinion: Meadow preserve threatened
The iconic meadow adjacent to Windy Hill Open Space Preserve has long been a hallmark of Portola Valley. The gentle slopes of Windy Hill and the meadow at its feet were the inspiration for the town's foundation.
Portola Valley's founders incorporated the town to preserve this scenic viewshed. Through much collaborative effort, Windy Hill itself was preserved. The meadow that frames its lower slopes was prioritized for protection by town founders in Portola Valley's general plan. It is one of four "community open space preserves" identified in the General Plan as "visually important to the entire quality of the valley."
Unfortunately the Meadow Preserve's future is in question because of an ill-considered change to the General Plan adopted by the Town Council on May 25, 2011. This change was made during a routine review of General Plan amendments recommended by the Planning Commission. Along with amendments to a number of elements, the commission had recommended changes intended to update and strengthen wording related to the Meadow Preserve. Rather than refine the commission wording, the council instead largely followed suggestions contained in a letter received the day of the hearing from attorney John Paul Hanna, who was representing a large landowner whose parcel (229 acres) includes much of the meadow.
Ultimately the wording adopted by the Town Council based on attorney Hanna's last-minute letter seriously weakened protection for the Meadow Preserve.
The council altered the Planning Commission's recommended language without specifically placing the item on an agenda to seek community comment for the change, and without informing the Planning Commission. Considering its importance, the Council should have placed the item on an agenda for a future meeting to allow public comment.
The Planning Commission was not informed that the council had adopted the weakened protection for the Meadow Preserve until months later. When the commission finally reviewed the language enacted by the Council, it became clear that the new wording was not only weaker but also ambiguous and difficult to interpret. Confronted with this, the Council agreed on October 26, 2011, that the new language needed to be referred back to the Planning Commission. But, the Town Council decided to delay making the referral until the Council discussed the issue one more time.
No action was taken and the matter languished for more than a year. The flawed General Plan wording, with its enfeebled protection for the Meadow Preserve, has remained in place as the law of our town. Finally, the Council has scheduled a joint session with the Planning Commission to address this problem.
It is vital that the residents of Portola Valley participate in this critical decision and let the Town Council and Planning Commission know that we want strong protection for the Meadow Preserve. Such protection should assure that the Meadow Preserve remains in a natural condition as a largely open scenic vista, not blighted by buildings and fences (that could be sited elsewhere on 229 acres) and not obscured by dense, hedge-like plantings that cut it off from public view. New language to safeguard the Meadow Preserve must be adopted as an urgency measure without further delay. Please attend the meeting at the Portola Valley Town Center on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m.
Jon Silver is a former mayor of Portola Valley and was assisted in writing this article by former planning commissioner Linda Elkind and Bev Lipman, an open space advocate.