Celebrating Portola Valley’s 50th Anniversary, April 3, 2014

The Sequoias Retirement Community became the setting for the April 3, 2014 celebration for 50 year residents.

It was a grand gathering with lots of comradery as residents shared their remembrances.

This was a multigenerational event.  The children of many early residents who still live in Portola Valley share values of the earlier times.

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Portola Valley Fifty Year Residents gathering at the Sequoias on April 3, 2014

Mayor Ann Wengert welcomes the crowd at the Sequoias, April 3, 2014Mayor Ann Wengert welcomes the crowd at the Sequoias, April 3, 2014

Former Council Member Sue Crane greets visitors, April 3, 2014
Former Council Member Sue Crane greets visitors, April 3, 2014
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 Nancy Lund, Ann Wengert, Cindie White and Danna Breen, April 3, 2014
Ellen and Bob Mosley, 60 year Portola Valley residents, April 3, 2014
Ellen and Bob Mosley, 60 year Portola Valley residents, April 3, 2014
Dianne Shilling and Mimi Breiner, April 3, 2014
Dianne Shilling and Mimi Breiner, April 3, 2014
Marilyn Walter and Ad Jessup, April 3, 2014
Marilyn Walter and Ad Jessup, April 3, 2014
Jean Lane, April 3, 2014
Jean Lane, April 3, 2014
John and Ellie Garner, April 3, 2014
John and Ellie Garner, April 3, 2014
Ron Ramies gives Carlo Besio a big hug as Nina Else looks one, April 3, 2014
Ron Ramies gives Carlo Besio a big hug as Nina Else looks on, April 3, 2014

Ed Wells and Cindie White share memories, April 3, 2014Ed Wells and Cindie White share memories, April 3, 2014

Sylvia McCrory still beautiful after 96 years will a smile that would warm anyone's heart.  April 3, 2014
Sylvia McCrory still beautiful after 96 years with a smile that would warm anyone’s heart,  April 3, 2014

 

 

 

The Story of Incorporation, Part III

 Realizing that the post-war boom roaring through the small towns of the United States was beginning to reach the valley, a group of seventy-five residents met at the Portola Valley School on January 13, 1955 to discuss how to “protect the rural character of the area, to defend it against intensive development, the population boom and urbanization.” They created an organization they called the Portola Valley Association. It was the first of many, many meetings committees and studies before Portola Valley became an incorporated town in 1964, thereby allowing residents to make their own land-use decisions.

   In 1955, few Americans worried about over-use of land, or about pollution, or environmentalism. Bigger was considered better. Earth Day demonstrations would not be held for another fifteen years, the Environmental Protection Agency would not come into being until 1970 and global warming was unknown, never mind a household word. Yet these citizens of the village of Portola Valley wanted to grapple with environmental and other and land use issues before irreparable damage was done.

By 1957, a committee composed of Horton Whipple, Bob Brown, and Albert Boissevain had prepared a 25-page report detailing problems based on increasing pressure from subdividers and commercial interests.

Bob Brown

Bob Brown

Their report used the approximate borders of the school district.  Their entire report was mailed to all residents.  Most read it, and many attended long meetings about growth and possible solutions. Democracy was alive and well.

A postcard poll followed. Results: 400 cards returned; 201 against incorporation,   50 for it, and 149 wanting to postpone incorporation.  The Association dropped plans for incorporation and focused on developing a master plan for the area and studying  the  possibility of annexation to Woodside.

Then John Francis Neylan, owner of 1500 acres above Portola Road, sold property  along the road to the Northern California Presbyterian Homes. They planned a retirement home on the site.

Sign showing the location for the Sequoias Retirement Community

Sign showing the location for the Sequoias Retirement Community

Although the plans were relatively modest, one feature alarmed residents: the introduction of sewers to the valley. Until that time, the sole use of septic tanks, which required large leach fields, provided a natural brake on growth. A sewer line, however, could make possible close, multiple hook-ups and small lots, even apartments. Canvassing by the Association showed widespread opposition to the complex, but the County of San Mateo approved the project, named by then the Sequoias, anyway. Here was significant proof that local control was the only way to preserve their valley. How best to accomplish this was the dilemma.

The Portola Valley Association proclaimed itself neutral with regard to what decisions should be made to achieve that goal; members considered it an information gathering body and a clearing house for discussions. The Association hired Griffenhagen-Kroeger, a highly respected consulting firm specializing in local governments, to study such issues as a description and costs of existing government service, the operating budget the proposed city would require, non-property tax revenues available, and fiscal consequences of annexation.  They presented their report in April.  More discussions. Democracy is time-consuming.

1960 Incorporation Map for the Town of Portola Valley

1960 Incorporation Map for the Town of Portola Valley, California

Meanwhile, a number of people within the Association continued to believe that incorporation was the only way to assure reasonable development in the valley. The Committee for the Incorporation had been formed in January and planned to go through the required procedures to bring a vote. The first step was to file a Notice to Circulate a Petition for Incorporation with the county along with a map of the proposed new town. The petition had to have signatures from at least 25% of the population within the boundaries, who represented at least 25% of the assessed valuation of that area.  That notice was filed with the county on February 1, 1960.

On March 4, 1960, John Francis Neylan (yes, the man who had sold land for the Sequoias) sent the first of many mass letters to the “Residents and Tax Payers of Portola Valley” announcing his intention to procure signatures of the owners of 51% of the land’s assessed valuation. Presenting such a petition to the Board of Supervisors would be sufficient to halt incorporation. His goal: “to stop the headlong rush into unknown taxes and turmoil.”

John Francis Neylan was a formidable foe to the Committee for Incorporation. He was the lawyer for William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the old San Francisco Call, State Controller, and twenty-eight-year member of the University of California Board of Regents.

John Francis Neylan

John Francis Neylan

Alexander Bodie, editor of the Palo Alto Times knew him well. He wrote: “He was a biased, opinionated and often an irritating  man  – I think he would have taken that as a compliment.” Neylan spoke of himself thusly: “Some people love me, some people hate me; no one within the sound of my voice is indifferent.”

The battle was engaged.

The Committee began circulating its petition to incorporate on April12. They needed 443 signatures based on 1772 property owners, and  representation of  $700,408 of $ 2,801,635 of assessed valuation.

Neylan fired off a series of letters, including response postcards.  He first garnered support of the large landowners; others followed. His frequent letters to the community, using words such as “sly and slick maneuvers, a dearth of intelligent arguments”, and “misrepresentations and fraudulent statements,” about the Committee to Incorporate were enormously effective.

On June 1, the Petition to Incorporate was filed with 548 names, 30.9% of residents who represented $717,104.50, 25.595 % of the assessed valuation of the proposed town. It was enough!  A hearing was set by the Board of Supervisors for September 15, at which time it was presumed that they would set a date for an incorporation election.

Meanwhile, Neylan had filed petitions of protest from 680 residents representing $1,305,815 of assessed valuation; it was $200,000 short of the required 51%. Since another 212 more protests had been filed at the last minute, the hearing was postponed so that the names could be verified.

In the end, on October 6, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution declaring that 55.2% of owners of more than 51% of the assessed valuation had protested. The incorporation attempt had failed.

John Francis Neylan had died on August 19.

Elsa Roscoe

Elsa Roscoe and her then-husband Ray Spafford found Portola Valley on a sightseeing jaunt in the days when the Alpine Hills sub-division  was just being laid out.  They fell in love with the place with its few houses tucked in among the trees; they felt they’d fit in well with the outdoorsy people.

Elsa Roscoe, 2004

Elsa Roscoe, 2004

Developer Don Holden carved out an extra “problem lot” for them on Holden Court. It had an irregular shape and  was overgrown with vegetation; they considered the lot a challenge, but it had a better price than the others and had a forest in back and a fine view.  People said: why would you move way out there? No street lights, no sidewalks, no sewers, and no private phone lines.  In fact, for years the Spaffords shared a party line with their neighbors the Linvills. That arrangement worked so well that the two families continued it for many, many  years, until the phone company said they had to have private lines.

She was an ardent naturalist and loved animals, especially her cats, Reilly and ENC.  Elsa modeled for Eastman Kodak and at charity events in an earlier time.  She outlived three husbands, traveled the world, sometimes on freighters, went on digs every summer with Earthwatch, volunteered at the USGS and practiced yoga every day from her 60s onward.

Portola Road, 1874 and 1854

Portola Road, 1874 and 1854

In June of 1874, the editor of the Telegram and Gazette took a drive along Portola Road.  This excerpt from his report is a reminder of how quickly the loggers passed through the valley and how rich their harvest must have been.

Moving towards Searsville we pass through the farm of Supervisor [Hugh] Kelly. It puts us in mind of the early days. Here and there through the grain are redwood stumps, of large size, but black and blistered from the effects of the many fires to which they have been exposed. Hardly a score of years ago this very spot was a forest of giant trees, and nearby was a sawmill manufacturing lumber [probably the Mastic mill on Bull Run Creek near Wyndham Drive]. The ravines were full of men and teams, and the yell of the bullwhacker and the pop of his whip rang upon the air with the roar of going artillery. How changed! The timber is gone, as are the bachelor axmen and their cabins, and in their place is the permanent home, the orchard, the wife and the little ones…

An excerpt from the June 6, 1874 issue

Portola Road vicinity, 2003

Portola Road vicinity, 2003

Karen and John Wu

Al’s Nursery

Karen Wu is the daughter of Al Bertschinger, the longtime owner of Al’s Nursery on Portola Road. The business, started in 1959, was the way of life for the family from the beginning. At first they lived in the little building that became the office, then in 1960 in a house they built on the site. Both Karen and her sister worked alongside their parents, beginning by pulling weeds. “Work first, then play,” was the motto. (Play was sometimes in the dirt of sparsely traveled Portola Road.)

Karen and John Wu
Karen and John Wu

Karen met John, who has a background in biology and zoology, at the nursery.  He had had various careers, e. g. college administration, before he began chatting with Al one day when he was biking the loop. He and Karen eventually married, and became increasingly active in the business as Al aged. Karen and John took over the business in 1996. Until his last days, Al missed the work and always asked, “Who came in today?”

In 2011, the Wus sold the nursery and retired to Florida to join their two children who work for Disney. Volunteering and/or working only eight-hour days was something to look forward to.

Bob Katz

Bob and Sue Katz bought their lot on Mapache in 1958, even though they were living in the East at the time. Four years later they moved into their new home. It was two years before incorporation, and Bob became interested in the discussions within the community.  Seeing the benefits of decisions being made by local people instead of by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission, Bob led the campaign for local control. He still remembers a great celebratory party on June 24, 1964 when residents voted “yes” to incorporation.

Bob Katz, 2013

Bob Katz, 2013

He became the first chairman (and last survivor) of the first Portola Valley Planning Commission. He says that the town’s spirit of volunteerism began in those very early years of the town’s history.

He remembers those early years as wonderful. Twenty or thirty families all had children about the same ages, and everyone played together and walked to school together. The creek that runs behind and below the Katz house (and several others,) was a favorite spot. One day as one of the Katz sons came home after playing for hours down there, he said,  “Every boy should have his own creek!”

The Incorporation Of Portola Valley – Part 2

August 14, 1945.Thirty million persons had died, but World War II was over, and the world began to revert slowly to normalcy. Boom time lay ahead. The war had had a powerful effect on San Mateo County. Thousands of workers had moved into the area to staff the military installations created in the war effort. Tens of thousands of members of the armed forced had passed through on the way to the Pacific theater. Many liked what they saw here and planned to return once the war ended. By 1950, more than 20,000 people a year were pouring into San Mateo County, looking for homes and jobs. The county population had increased by 110% between 1940 and 1950, and the 1950s saw another 89% increase. Subdivisions popped up everywhere. Assembly-line construction produced apartments, single-family dwellings and other necessary facilities at a rapid clip. The open land that once made San Mateo County the immense garden of San Francisco began to disappear. Eminent County Historian Frank Sanger summed up the situation in 1954: “Today the word most characteristic of the times is ‘subdivision.’ Divide and subdivide is the order of the day, driven on by the pressure of increased land values.” Little Portola Valley, a quiet hamlet of estates, small farms and summer cottages, wasn’t immune to the pressure. Two of the large landowners or their heirs put their properties on the market. In 1948, the Fitzhugh heirs sold their estate, Catoctin, today’s Grove and Stonegate neighborhoods, to the real estate firm of Cornish and Carey for 41 building sites that ranged in size from one to two and a half acres.

In 1946, Dent Macdonough sold the first portion of his Ormondale Ranch to a cooperative, the Peninsula Housing Association, that began the development of Ladera.     Old Ladera Brochure

Old Ladera Brochure

At first Macdonough was horrified at the thought of 400 houses rising on those 260 acres.

Dent Macdonough

Dent Macdonough

But he realized that civilization was closing in, and he was ready to move on. In 1947 he sold 209 acres to the Westridge Company, which eventually increased its holdings to 750 acres. Respecting the beauty of the land, these developers restricted lot size to 2 ½ acres. In 1955, Macdonough sold another 125 acres that became the Oak Hills development with two acre minimums.  Between 1957 and 1963, he sold the flat land around today’s Ormondale School, the heart of his immense ranch, thereby creating Arrowhead Meadows. These were very tempting properties to young families. Although many buyers and their friends thought Portola Valley was too far out in the country, prices were less than those in Palo Alto. And the land was beautiful. 

A look at the school population from 1944 to 1957, thirteen years, reveals how rapidly the young families were arriving:  1944: 24 students; 1949: 62; 1951: 149; 1953: 230; 1957: 464!

SCHM-087d PVSD 48, 57 smallThe two one-room schoolhouses weren’t sufficient for the young students. One was divided into two classrooms;  the other was dismantled to make room for Portola Valley School which was built in sections in the 1950s but not fast enough to accommodate the increasing enrollment.

 For a time kindergarteners met at Our Lady of the Wayside. Some classes went into double sessions.  Fruit picker shacks and dormitories were revamped for classrooms. The superintendent held parent conferences in his car.

SCHM-091d PVSD Bond DrThe band practiced in the redwood grove.  During one election, a class was held in the school bus because the room was needed for the voters.

Classes held in School Bus

Classes held in School Bus

Thanks to regular bond issues, Corte Madera opened in 1958, the last wings of PVS were finished in 1959, and Ormondale was ready in 1961.

At last every child has a regular classroom, but growth was predicted to continue.  In 1956 a survey conducted by the San Mateo County School Board and Stanford’s School of Education predicted that the population would double from 2800 within 5 years, eventually reaching 2637 to 4000 families with a school population that would reach 1900.  In 1959 the county planning commission projected a population of 17,000 by 1990.  It was not only families that were tempted by the open spaces in Portola Valley.

California Cabana Clubs planned a country club at Portola and Westridge with a 9-hole golf course among other sporting amenities, just one of three such plans being proposed.

Proposed Arrowhead Country Club

Proposed Arrowhead Country Club

“Mama” Garcia, proprietor of the popular restaurant bearing her name, applied to open a rest home.  A 75-bed hospital at Nathhorst was in the works as was a convalescent hospital on Hillbrook. Apartments were being considered. Thoughts of a new state college on the Bovet property arose.  Multiple plans were broached for extending Willow Road [now called Sand Hill] along Alpine Road which would become a four lane parkway astride Los Trancos Creek. It could then extend over Coal Mine Ridge to connect with Page Mill Road. Or Willowbrook could become that extension. It gradually became apparent to the new residents that the ambiance of their new hometown could change drastically. They loved the quiet rural quality, the wildlife, the views, the pleasure of riding horses over open space. They worried about decisions that the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission might make for their little corner at the very southern tip of the county, so far away from the seat of government. Realizing that the post-war boom was reaching the valley, on January 13, 1955, a group of 75 residents met at Portola School to discuss how to protect the character of the area, to defend it against intensive development, the population boom and urbanization. This group, originally led by Robert Paul, Ray Garrasino, Tony Rose and Jeffrey Smith eventually became the Portola Valley Association. The drive for incorporation had begun.

by Nancy Lund, February 7, 2014

Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California