Obituary: Joe Whelan, developer of Portola Valley Ranch | November 6, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - November 6, 2013

Obituary: Joe Whelan, developer of Portola Valley Ranch

by Dave Boyce

The community of Portola Valley Ranch lost Joe Whelan over the weekend, the property developer who took the concept of living in harmony with nature and made it real at the Ranch. For his pioneering work in developing clustered communities, Mr. Whelan was recognized with numerous design awards and a story in Sunset Magazine. He died Saturday, Nov. 2.

The 200 or so inconspicuous but comfortable homes of Portola Valley Ranch, which opened in 1975, are literally nestled within a 453-acre planned community at the southern end of town. Impervious surfaces such as roofs, roads and decks occupy just 25 percent of the land with the rest dedicated in perpetuity as open space, said long-time residents Nancy Thompson and Sheldon Breiner.

"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," Ms. Thompson said. 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."

"We're very appreciative and happy," Mr. Breiner said, "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," town 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."

Plans for a memorial service had not firmed up by the time of publication of this obituary. Betty Jean Whelan, Mr. Whalen's wife of 62 years, died in January 2010. The Almanac was unable to reach a Whelan family member on questions such as Mr. Whelan's age and his survivors.

One-acre lots

What Mr. Whelan proposed in the early 1970s ran smack into the town's zoning requirement of one acre per home, which would have made a cluster development impossible, longtime town planner George Mader told the Almanac. "It was controversial," Mr. Mader said, not least because, in this equestrian community, a home had to have at least an acre to allow a horse.

"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."

Homeowners can choose from about 10 to 12 home designs with uniform exterior colors and siding, but there is room to modify locations of windows, decks and other such features.

Mr. Mader helped develop a degree program in environmental earth science at Stanford University, where he taught for 30 years. He would take his students out to Portola Valley Ranch. "It's an outstanding example of how you can do a cluster design attuned to the topology and the geology and the natural vegetation."

Working with Mr. Whelan "was one of the nicest experiences I've had in town," Mr. Mader said. "The town owes so much to his farsightedness."


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a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 6, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Joe Whelan's funeral Service will be held Friday November 8th at 10:00 AM at the Church of the Nativity.

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