Services for Joe Whelan, Portola Valley Ranch developer


A vigil is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, and a memorial service for 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park for Joe Whelan, the Portola Valley resident and property developer behind the innovative subdivision of Portola Valley Ranch.

The Church of the Nativity is located at 210 Oak Grove Ave. just west of Middlefield Road near Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park.

Mr. Whelan, the developer of the 453-acre subdivision and a pioneer in building human communities that can co-exist with wildlife, died Saturday, Nov. 2 in his home on Portola Valley Ranch. He was 87.

In pursuing his development plans in the early 1970s, Mr. Whelan campaigned in public hearings at the Town Council on the benefits of sidestepping the one-acre-per-home zoning precedent that prevailed in town at the time, former and longtime town planner George Mader told the Almanac.

The zoning change was controversial in an equestrian-oriented community in which residential parcels had to be at least one acre so as to allow the owner to keep a horse, Mr. Mader said. The subdivision opened in 1975.

"He took a gamble," Mr. Mader said. "Would the public buy these houses on smaller lots in Portola Valley. It was a big educational process. ... Fortunately, there's a good aesthetic in town for the natural environment and that won over a lot of people."

The residential part of Portola Valley Ranch consists of some 200 inconspicuous but comfortable homes built on areas geologically stable enough for construction -- about 25 percent of the tract -- with the remainder preserved in perpetuity as the Coal Mine Ridge open space preserve. Homeowners can choose from 10 to 12 home designs that have uniform exterior colors and siding, but flexibility to modify the locations of windows, decks and other such features.

"It's an outstanding example of how you can do a cluster design attuned to the topography and the geology and the natural vegetation," Mr. Mader said. Working with Mr. Whelan "was one of the nicest experiences I've had in town," he added. "The town owes so much to his farsightedness."

Residents comment

"Having the houses not stand out architecturally meant that they would blend into the wild land, leaving a small footprint for humans and letting the wild land and the wildlife prevail," said Ranch resident Nancy Thompson. That wildlife includes turkeys, deer, coyotes, snakes and tarantulas. "Most of the time, they're a pleasure to watch," she said. "We are the inhabitants in the zoo and the animals come to visit us."

"The birding community here is in heaven, as well as the astronomers," Ms. Thompson continued. (Portola Valley heavily restricts residential night-lighting.) "All the residents who live here are eternally grateful to his vision and perseverance. It's very special and we all owe him an eternal debt of gratitude."

"We're very appreciative and happy," said Ranch resident Sheldon Breiner, "that he had the foresight to take this gorgeous piece of land and allow us to live on it, not just to stare at it and go hiking on it."

"His design was so brilliant ... and we got a great addition to our town," Portola Valley historian Nancy Lund said. "He's been here all this time and we're going to miss him enormously. His idea of the cluster style and saving all those areas for open space at Coal Mine Ridge is just an enormous gift to the town."

Childhood in Atherton

According to accounts from relatives, Joseph Michael Whelan was born in San Francisco of parents who at one point had lived in Yosemite Valley. He grew up in Atherton and attended St. Joseph's Elementary School and Sequoia High School, where he made a name for himself as a football player. At 16, he built a cabin in the woods, an experience that "served as a foundation and inspiration for a lifetime of building."

Mr. Whelan served on gun crews on Merchant Marine ships in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he attended San Jose State University, where helped found a water skiing club. He was an accomplished water skier and was still skiing backwards on one ski into his 50s, relatives said.

He met Betty Jean Burrell at San Jose State and married her in Santa Barbara in 1948.

Over his career as a developer, Mr. Whelan won numerous awards in U.S. and European architectural journals and was featured in a Sunset Magazine story for his visionary work in office and home design. At one point, he was a director of the National Association of Home Builders, and was president of the Peninsula General Contractors and Builders Association.

Betty Jean Whelan, Mr. Whalen's wife of 62 years, died in January 2010. Survivors include his five children, Karen Sanford, Mike Whelan, Betty Jo Paroli, John Whelan, Susan Killian, and their spouses, ten grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.


1 person likes this
Posted by Ken Wachtel
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:03 am

I worked with Joe Whelan as his attorney for almost a decade. He was a good and decent man who cared about his family and the environment. He zealously guarded the open space at Portola Ranch and had a very open mind when listening to the ideas of others. I was just going to send him a holiday card when I found this article. It is a sad loss. He was a good man. Portola Ranch was his dream. I am glad to hear it is thriving as he envisioned it.

Like this comment
Posted by M. Walter
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on May 29, 2016 at 7:57 pm

As the first to buy a home in the nascent Portola Valley Ranch, I am eternally grateful to Joe Whelan, and our Town Planner George Mader for working so creatively to give us the opportunity to live in such lovely, natural surroundings.

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