Category Archives: Portola Valley History

The Story of Windmill School

Everyone who travels on Portola Road in Portola Valley notices the whimsical windmill that has stood on the corner of Georgia Lane for ninety-nine years. Some probably know that it isn’t really a windmill; rather it’s a structure placed atop a well by William Fitzhugh, the owner of an estate called Catoctin, todays’ Grove and Stonegate.

But few know that a Portola Valley institution had its beginnings right beside that windmill around sixty years ago. That institution is the Windmill Preschool. Ever wondered why it’s called Windmill? Now you know. Since the preschool is soon to begin a new chapter in its evolution, this seems a good time to tell its story.

It was in the 1950s, most probably 1957, that Irma Scheller, a young mom who lived on Wyndham, decided to open a preschool in the little house that stood beside the windmill. The house wasn’t in very good shape, and It was a simple beginning for the school she called Windmill Day Nursery School. Among its features were a six-foot long green fiberglass dinosaur and a tan four-foot tall horse with a white mane.

Mrs. Scheller probably didn’t know that the very site where she started her preschool had been the home of the Corte Madera Brewery in the 1870s.

She ran the school until 1969 when the land with the house was purchased by Sharon and Dennis Reichardt. They ran the school for a few years and in 1974 hired Joan Barksdale from the renowned Bing Nursery School at Stanford to be the director. Learning through play continued to be the school’s philosophy. Since the house was small, and since our climate is what it is, much of the program was outside: walking through the nearby orchard, looking at the creek that was right there, playing with the goat, gathering eggs from the chickens and the watching the sheep being sheared every year. The garage was on a slab, and that’s where the easels were set up for art. There were ten or twelve families, who all became good friends.

When the Reichardts decided to sell the property in the mid-1970s, the families of Windmill wanted the preschool to continue. By then about seventy children were enrolled. Possible sites were few, but the little stone building on the Alpine Hills Swim and Tennis Club property that had served as the Town Hall was empty. The group created a non-profit corporation with a volunteer board of directors. They raised money, came to an agreement with with Alpine Hills and the Town,  donated hours of physical labor to get the building and grounds ready, and moved the Windmill Preschool into new quarters in 1977.

The families probably didn’t know that before their preschool became the Town Hall, the building had been Eugene Kelly’s saloon in the teens and twenties and later the center of the Manginis’ Picnic Park until 1958, a spot where many a glass of beer had been quaffed. Their historic bar is featured in the swim and tennis club today.

It turned out to be a good fit. At first a maximum of 21 children from ages 2 ½ to 6 were allowed at any one time, with up to three teachers. The youngsters could participate in a tennis camp and a swim program in addition to the regular learn-through-play curriculum.

Now we come to the present. The little stone house is really too small for the kinds of programs the staff would like to offer today. And the swim and tennis club needs the building. So the search for new quarters has been on. Options aren’t much greater today than they were in the mid ‘70s.

After a long, diligent search, the board of directors purchased the Al’s Nursery site, 900 Portola Road, in 2015. When the new buildings are ready, in the fall of 2017, they have plans to add to the program—morning classes for all preschool age groups, a ‘young fives’ class, and enrichment classes for both preschoolers and young elementary school students. They will establish also a Family Education Center.  The tradition of play-based learning for all the community’s preschoolers will be enhanced, and the school will, for the first time in its sixty years of existence, have its own home.

And those families that established the non-profit foundation in the 1970s? They established personal bonds as well, went on to play many leadership roles in the schools, and remain good friends today.

The Hawthorns

The Hawthorns

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The almost 80-acres historically known as The Hawthorns lies along Alpine Road in Portola Valley from the border of Portola Valley Ranch to Los Trancos Road and up the hill toward Los Trancos Woods. It has been held in only two families’ ownership since rancho days, some one hundred twenty five years, an amazing statistic. In 2007, it entered the public domain as a bequest. It will remain in open space in perpetuity, an unbelievably wonderful gift. Here is its story.

Of course it was Ohlone territory at first. Although no documented proof that they wandered this specific land has turned up, Ted and Rosie Luce discovered a pestle in the creek on their property, immediately across Los Trancos Road. And all early documents record that the Old Spanish Trail, on the other side of the property, was originally used by the Ohlone to walk to the coast for shellfish. So, surely the land between these two locations has born witness to an Ohlone presence.

In 1834 Maximo Martinez and one Juan Peralta gained ownership of the 13,000 acre Rancho el Corte de Madera from the Mexican government, all of Portola Valley and more. Peralta shortly left for family land in the East Bay, but the Martinez family held on to large portions until Maximo’s death in 1863. Most likely the Martinezes used it for grazing. There is a large barn on the property that allegedly dated from 1867.

Maximo’s son Antonio inherited what has come to be known as The Hawthorns. In time, Antonio put this portion of his inheritance up for sale. Louis Nissen bought it and immediately sold it to James and Ida Davis Allen in 1886. Perhaps Nissen was a realtor, or perhaps he was an agent of the Allen family.

James Monroe Allen was born in Ohio in 1844, graduated from Yale in 1867, studied law, and came to California in the 1870s, for reasons unknown. By 1879, he was voted a Superior Court judge. Although he didn’t sit on the bench for long, he was forever after referred to as “Judge.” He married Ida Davis in 1881. Ida too was from Ohio and the niece of US Senator from Nevada William Sharon. [NB: It was Sharon’s son Frederick who owned what became Sharon Heights in Menlo Park.]

                                        The Allen Era

James AllenThe newspapers of the time immediately began to report that Judge Allen was creating a gentleman’s farm, in the tradition of wealthy San Francisco residents seeking summer homes.  

San Mateo County Times Gazette, Jan. 23, 1886: [Judge Allen] is busy putting the ground in proper condition for vines. …also intends to engage extensively in the culture of fig and olive trees.

San Mateo County Times Gazette, Dec. 25, 1886: …Seven acres were set out in grapes and about 500 olive trees were planted. The olives have thrived splendidly. About an equal number will be planted in the spring.

The newspapers also reported on the residence and outbuildings, announcing the arrival on the property of several thousand feet of lumber for a residence, a large barn and several outbuildings. Once again, the San Mateo County Times Gazette August 1887: On Judge Allen’s place, Mr. James Tannahill, [the contractor] has put in a ram, which pumps from the Trancos water enough to supply all the needs of the place…He has nearly completed the outside framework of Judge Allen’s fine residence Architect W. F. Smith says the carpenter work on this house is the best he has ever done on this coast.

By 1887, the Allens’ two-story house was ready for occupancy. TheAllen-Woods Home family, which included three children at that point, Harriet Elizabeth, Ruth and Frank Francis, moved to the country. The arrival of James Kirk and Clara Adelaide completed the family. The one known surviving photo of the house and children is dated 1893. Included in the photo are the five children, nurse Bridget Cox and a Chinese cook peering out an upstairs window. The judge commuted to the city for business. At times he apparently rented hotel rooms in San Mateo near the train station.

Daughter Ruth recalled her childhood at The Hawthorns as a “most perfect childhood” with ponies, dogs and horses. She recalled that her father planted every type of tree and that there were wonderful orchards and large expanses of lawn. Lining the edge of the property along Alpine Road was a hedge of hawthorn trees, brilliantly colorful in spring bloom and also in fall berries. Folks would come by surreptitiously to cut branches of flowers, and young boys with guns would shoot the birds attracted by the berries. The Allen place became known as The Hawthorns; mail could reach them addressed to: The Hawthorns, Redwood City, California.

The children had governesses rather than attend local schools, and when the children reached high school age, the family moved to the city and ever after used the Hawthorns as a summer place. Newspapers continued to report on the activities of the family with accounts of the judge’s business and social affairs and elaborate recounting of the engagements and weddings of Elizabeth and Ruth, as well as information about Clara’s attending school in Santa Barbara, being presented to society, and later deciding to enter a convent in Paris to become a nun.

Judge Allen died in 1913. In July 1916, Ida Davis Allen sold their beloved country place to Frances Newhall Woods and Frederick Nickerson Woods. The two families had had several connections over the years in San Francisco. The judge and Fred Woods, JR.  had involvement with the Bank of California. Clara Allen had been a bridesmaid in the 1912 Newhall-Woods wedding.

                                                The Woods Era

 The Woods story at The Hawthorns begins with Henry Mayo Newhall. Henry came to California from Massachusetts in 1850, viaHenry Mayo Newhall Panama, with the intention of striking it rich in the gold fields. However, he got sick crossing Panama, and by the time he recovered, caught a ship to San Francisco and headed for the Mother Lode, it was too late. Discouraged by his lack of finding ‘color’ and running out of money, he determined to return home.

However, he was reluctant to show up at home with less money than he had when he left, so he put to work the auctioneering skills he had learned in the East. Successfully selling spare clothes, he then sold his ticket to Panama and decided to stay for a while. He caught the eye of a local auction house, was very successful at finding buyers for their wares, and in short order bought out the older owners. The H. M. Newhall Company was in business and doing well.

Thus, Henry was one of those men who came West with virtually nothing in their pockets and struck it rich, not in the gold fields but by providing services the miners needed. Like these men, he was smart, perseverant, far-sighted, and lucky. With a little surplus money, he began to buy up property in San Francisco. Eventually his purchases extended to the peninsula. Stagecoach or horseback travel down the peninsula was uncomfortable and time-consuming, and Henry realized that the area needed railroad service. And so, with two partners, he built the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad in the 1860s. An entrepreneur, indeed.

And on he went. He began to buy rancho property, up and down the coast, eventually accumulating some 150,000 acres from Monterey to Los Angeles counties.  He ran cattle, figured out how to create irrigation, and planted orchards of various fruit trees. He was making a fortune. He married along the way, at first to Sarah Ann White, with whom he had 3 sons, Henry, (1853,) William Mayo (1854,) and Edwin White (1856.)  When Sarah died in 1858, he married her sister, Margaret Jane, the next year, and they had two more sons, Walter (1860) and George (1862.) In time the five sons all went into business with their dad.

When Henry Senior died in 1882, the five sons and Henry’s widow Margaret incorporated the Newhall Land and Farming Company and divided up the many responsibilities. The company exists to this day, further expanded into the Central Valley and diversified from farming to town planning and more.

The son who is important to The Hawthorns story is Edwin, who was 21 when his dad died. He married Fannie Sillman Hall; Almer Mayo Newhall was born to them in 1881. When Fannie died, he married Virginia Whiting. They had two daughters, Virginia (1889) and Frances, (1891). Active in the city’s most important Newhall Yachtclubs and societies, the Edwin Newhalls traveled in the highest circles of San Francisco society. They lived in a fine house at 2950 Pacific Avenue and regularly cruised the bay in a palatial yacht similar to those in the earliest America’s Cup races. As was common in the era, newspapers provide glowing accounts of the high society set, including Virginia and Frances, their friends and cousins.

It was a storied lifestyle for Frances and her sister. Elaborate parties of the debutante season were one part. Both were active in the Cinderella Dancing Club and the Green Way Assembly although charitable work and athletics took priority.  Both were splendid equestriennes. They belonged to the San Francisco Riding and Driving Club where they participated in tournaments. Both musical, they organized a fortnightly music club that met in homes of members. Visits to Martha’s Vineyard and their mother’s family there were regular summer events. One newspaper account reports of the sisters and their mother spending several months in the East, returning home with stunning gowns for the many parties planned for the social season.

When Frances and Fred Woods Jr. were courting, horseback rides inFrances Wood Golden Park were regular occurrences. Fred’s parents, both deceased by the time of their wedding, were Frederick Nickerson Woods, Sr. and Josephine Gertrude Tozer, also prominent and well-known San Franciscans. Josephine had a summer residence in Cupertino, “”Dell of the Woods.” Fred had three sisters who never married and lived together for fifty years in a house they bought in 1921. His two brothers were Herbert and Frank. Frances and Fred Jr. married in an elaborate wedding ceremony on June 1, 1912. Clara Allen, youngest daughter of James and Ida Allen was a bridesmaid.

Their first child, Virginia, was born in February, 1913; Frederick Nickerson Woods III came along on May 30, 1914 and Edwin in 1917.  The young family lived in a Pacific Avenue apartment above a garage that Julia Morgan had designed for Frances’ parents next door to the Newhall residence. It was in 1916 that the Woods purchased a summer place, perpetuating the family tradition. They immediately began to make changes to the house at The Hawthorns.

The Woods were not as interested in horticulture as the Allens had been. Rather they focused on animals, horses of course, and for a time hogs. They added corrals and fencing and removed the Allen apple orchard in about 1918 to make room for pasture. However, their main residence continued to be in San Francisco until about 1940 when they moved to The Hawthorns permanently.

Life there seems to have been different from that of the typical country home for wealthy San Franciscans. The Woods lived simply. Remnants of outbuildings are the only indications of ranch life in which animals rather than orchards predominated. Various sheds with corrugated iron roofs, many dating from the Allen era, seem to have been used for various kinds of storage.

Frances, who had been educated at Dana Hall in Boston, continued to focus on horses. She had a riding ring around which she would drive her sulky. She provided a home for retired horses and donkeys from the San Francisco police department here and on family property in the east bay. In the 1930s, she packed up her three Frances and childrenchildren and drove across country to spend the summer on family property on Martha’s Vineyard, with a chauffeur accompanying them in a second car. A bold woman, she was.

Frances’s husband Fred Jr. died in 1954. After his death, the property began to deteriorate from lack of care. Frances continued to live in the house with her daughter until she married in 1972 at age 59. From then on, Frances lived in the house alone until her death in 1978.

The Woods had apparently deeded some of the property to their son Fred III around 1952. He had married Harriet White around 1948, and they build a 1950s-style house on this property (4411 Alpine Road) and lived there until their deaths in 2005 and 2008. Fred III was a vice-president of the California Building Materials Supply Company. He and Harriet had two children: Fred IV, born in 1951 and sometime later a daughter, born with Down Syndrome and institutionalized her entire life.

This was the era of the old cars. Fred III collected them in quantity. They littered the property. At one point a caboose was a part of the collection.  Fred IV roamed the 80 acres, as boys will, and followed his father’s interest in cars. For a time had a little business buying and selling them.

It all went terribly wrong in 1976. Fred IV and two friends, James and Richard Schoenfeld, high-jacked a school bus filled with 26 Chowchilla school children and their driver.  Thinking, presumably, to obtain a large random, they imprisoned them in a truck buried in a quarry owned by the Woods family. The captives managed to get free, and the kidnappers were quickly apprehended, tried and sentenced to prison. Fred IV remains in prison at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.

Frances died in 1978, shortly after her grandson was sent to prison. The house was little used after that. Fred III and Harriet retired to a quiet life in their house on the property. The Allen-Woods 80-acre estate could have been sold to a developer for multi-millions of dollars. However, it was bequeathed to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District with the Peninsula Open Space Trust holding a conservation easement over the property in perpetuity. Accompanying the bequest was a two million endowment for maintenance and improvements. It was the largest gift in the open space district’s history.

One further chapter remains to the Woods era. A portion of the property had been left to Fred IV for his lifetime, then passing into the public domain. Whether because of tax implications, a wish to make amends for his grievous mistake, or for some other reason, Fred IV ceded his rights, and the entire property became publicly-owned immediately.                                                      

  The Public Era

This part of the saga is just beginning. Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) holds a conservation easement over the entire property, which is owned and managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) in stewardship for the public. The Allen-Woods property is considered to be a part of the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve. In 2015, seven years after Fred III’s bequest, the property is still closed to the public.

The big house that the Allens built and that the Woods remodeled in 1916 instantly became a target of vandals who broke nearly all of the old windows which had to be boarded up. Rats ran wild inside and out, and that problem had to be dealt with. The walls were full of bees and honey; bee keepers had to be called in an attempt to save as many of the bees as possible. The roof required a plastic covering to prevent further deterioration due to rain. A chain link fence had to be erected and a motion-detection light installed to try  halt further vandalism.

MIdpen has another problem. Its mission is the preservation of open Woods house with caption test 1space, not protection of historic structures, and public funds are limited. In addition to the Allen-Woods mansion, the historic complex contains several small outbuildings and three other buildings of considerable significance. The solution to the dilemma is to try to find a partner, with whom the agency can work to preserve the buildings while its staff tries to get trails built and the preserve open to the public.

To find this partner, it would be necessary to have as much information as possible about the buildings. Thus, in addition to dipping severely into the endowment to stabilize and protect the mansion, it was necessary to hire an architectural firm to evaluate the historic structures for their significance and for their structural condition. As a result of these comprehensive studies, Midpen learned that it had become owner of a set of buildings eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, not a circumstance to be taken lightly. The Hawthorns historic complex has been labeled a “gentleman’s farm,’ and a surviving representative of a way of life on the San Francisco peninsula from the 1860s until the end of World War II.

Midpen has found their partner: Richard and Ann Crevelt. They have entered into what will be a tiered series of contracts, if all goes well. essentially a long term lease. Midpen owns the land in perpetuity; the Crevelts have formed The Hawthorns Preservation Trust Foundation  to raise capital to make the necessary repairs in the mansion (and the three important outbuildings in time.) They plan to provide the community with a much benefit as possible. The first tier is about to get underway: a one-year permission to enter the property, to lay plans and to raise money. If that goes well, the rehabilitations will begin. Stay tuned.

Portola Valley Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Sunday, September 21, 2014 was the culmination of a year of planning for the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Portola Valley’s incorporation as a town.   The ad-hoc 50th Celebration Committee was headed by Cindie White and Danna Breen, who made this dream become a reality, along with many volunteers, Town Manager, Nick Pegueros, and Town staff.

Danna Breen and Cindie White
Danna Breen and Cindie White

The day started in an InterFaith Service at the Town Center and included the simultaneous ringing of bells.

Interfaith Service at Town Center included the simultaneous ringing of  bells from all the churches in Town.
Interfaith Service at Town Center included the simultaneous ringing of bells from all the churches in Town.

The Town invited residents to a BBQ and lots of events through out the day including gathering materials for a new time capsule.

50th Anniversary Celebration photo by Paige Bishop
50th Anniversary Celebration photo by Paige Bishop

There was an informative panel presentation moderated by Nancy Lund. It gave residents an overview of how the Town was formed and where its values came from.  Speakers included Sam Haltsed, George Mader, Sue Crane, Bill Cotton, Tom Vlasic and Alex VonFelt. Jon Silver also spoke eloquently from the audience describing Portola Valley as a “Garden of Eden” for democracy.

You can see the presentation here:

Nancy Bovee, Laure Woods and Steve Dunne performed a new Portola Valley song which they composed for the 50th Anniversary gathering.

What a great way to celebrate Portola Valley, the place we all call home.

Littlefield Auction – End of an Era

Jacques Littlefield passed away in 2009, but his legacy will continue as part of the non-profit Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts.

http://www.collingsfoundation.org/menu.htm

The Collings Foundation acquired Jacques amazing collection of military hardware, parts and manuals from the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, which was incorporated as a not-for-profit and founded by Jacques.  The Collings Foundation plans to build a new museum to house and preserve a large part of Jacques vast collection.

The Littlefield Auction Preview was Open to the Public on July 9 and 10, 2014
The Littlefield Auction Preview was Open to the Public on July 9 and 10, 2014

The new museum will be named after Jacques Littlefield and be open to the public about 8 months of the year.

To fund the construction and aid in the process of moving the collection from Pony Tracks Ranch in Portola Valley to its new location, the Collings Foundation held an auction on July 11 and 12th 2014.  The auction was conducted by Auctions America and held on site.  There were two auction Previews Days which were Open to the Public where Collings Foundation volunteers graciously provided information about the collection.

This volunteer explains details about the equipment and its history.
This volunteer explains details about the equipment and its history.
Littlefield Auction July 12, 2014
Littlefield Auction July 12, 2014. This was the Auction day the heavy equipment and tanks were sold. Three of the 5 Select Auction items did not meet their reserves and did not sell. All the other items had no reserves.
Auction Equipment Tag
Auction Equipment Tag

According to Michael Brandt, who led tours of the collection and worked in the machine shop, Jacques had high standards.  When restoring equipment he insisted on quality and authenticity both inside and out.  This is one of the reasons why Jacques collection is so highly acclaimed.

Hopes and dreams for the future are remembered in the books sold by Michael Brandt.

Michael sold many of the books he’s collected over the years to auction patrons.

Rob Collings of the Collings Foundation honored Tom Sator, a lifelong supporter who had ridden in combat in some of the vehicles auctioned.

Rob Collings presents a plaque to Ted Sator at the July 12, 2014 Auction
Rob Collings presents a plaque to Tom Sator at the July 12, 2014 Auction

The auction represented the end of an era for Portola Valley

 

 

 

The Story of Incorporation, Part V

November, 1963: Despite failed attempts at both incorporation and annexation to Woodside, the drive for local control over local issues continued. Officers of the Portola Valley Association were spending countless hours giving Valley opinions to the County about the development plans that continued to pour in for the area. The advocates of incorporation and annexation were united in believing that the status quo would be the ruination of the valley. However, those who were happy to have the government remain in distant Redwood City were also persistent.

Merrill Morshead took his argument to the Palo Alto Times, declaring that “in the sound and fury surrounding the attempt to incorporate as a city, certain arguments against incorporation are not being expressed…As to land presently scheduled for development, it is an undeserved slur at our county supervisors and planning commissioners to assume that they will permit developers to desecrate the valley. On the contrary, with the more extensive resources available to the county, it is better equipped to plan and control development of the area than will be a relatively poverty-stricken city government.”

Alan E. Green chimed in, saying, “Why don’t you newspapers give the people of Portola Valley a chance to speak for themselves, instead of forever trumpeting the persistent squeaking of a few “little idler wheels” of the Portola Valley Association? … If I still have the right as a citizen of the Republic, to want a little MORE FREEDOM …in preference to a lot more unnecessary government, … I surely do wish that you would also find out [what most people want.]”

A glimmer of hope did exist if an incorporation attempt failed once again, an Ace in the Hole. In June of 1962, the Association had asked the County to prepare a Master Plan for the Portola Valley region. The County agreed to do this and applied for a Federal grant to help in financing, to which the feds agreed, allotting $40,000 for the project. Spangle and Associates was hired to prepare the plan, which was to emphasize maintaining the rural, single-family residential, and open space aspects of the area. Creating an urban open space preserve was to be the goal. When the plan was completed, even if the status quo remained, development would be monitored by the County in accordance with its dictates. [The plan was completed and put to use by the first Town Council. They also hired Spangle employee, a young George Mader, who served as Town Planner for almost fifty years.]

However, the Action Group for Local Control had plans for seeking incorporation once again.

Last Action Group Members

They had gained permission to circulate a petition to incorporate on November 19, just one week after the Woodside defeat. The strategy they devised was a one-on-one approach: contact every homeowner, armed with information about the benefits of local control.

Bob Katz was put in charge of organizing the volunteers who would fan out and canvass the neighborhoods. He created a pyramid approach with area chairmen who oversaw neighborhood chairmen. Each neighborhood chairman was responsible for contacting approximately ten homes. This precinct organization and the vigorous outreach of the neighbor to neighbor approach were important factors in the ultimately successful vote.

Three months later, on February 11, 1964 the Board of Supervisors received the completed petition. It contained 1070 signatures, representing sixty percent of those eligible to sign and fifty-four percent of the total assessed land value of the area to be incorporated.  John Bruning, the county clerk, stated that it was the most extensive petition for an incorporation that he had ever received during his long term in office (In addition to signatures, the document contained very explicit and detailed statements about boundaries, zoning, densities, and objectives, prepared by attorney James Morton and planning consultant Lawrence Wise.) The Board agreed that the signatures were proper and well in excess of legal requirements. And, there was not a majority of the assessed value in opposition.

Thus, the next step was a public hearing, scheduled for March 26 and April 9.  In the midst of a large number of supporters, several landowners expressed opposition, but they represented less than 50% of the assessed valuation. The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the Action Group’s boundaries. They set an incorporation election date of June 23.

As it turned out, nine years after that first meeting to discuss how to reign in excessive development, the people of Portola Valley wanted to incorporate. They had attended countless meetings, received dozens of explanatory mailings on such issues as boundaries, local taxes, fire and police protection and water rights. As many as one hundred had served on committees, and another 250 had helped in one capacity or another.

On June 23, 1964, eighty-one percent of the electorate turned out to vote. 72.8% of the voters, 1061intensively-informed citizens, voted in favor of incorporation. Eleanor Boushey, Nevin Hiester, Bob Brown, Bill Lane and Sam Halsted were elected to the first Town Council.

first town council with captionPortola Valley officially became San Mateo County’s 18th incorporated community on July 14 at 5 PM when required paperwork was filed with the California Secretary of State, Frank Jordan. The first council meeting took place in the MUR of Portola Valley School on July 15. The councilmembers were sworn in by the County Manager, E. R. Stallings, and Nevin Hiester was elected mayor. The business of the new town began.  Various dignitaries and 120 summer school children were in the audience.  A dog slept on the stage.

In a triumphant and graceful report about the years of arduous, widespread volunteer efforts to create Portola Valley, Myron Alexander, Bill Lane and Nevin Hiester conclude: “Thus, the Town of Portola Valley came into existence with the desired boundaries intact, a Master Plan at no cost to the town, with planning control over the western foothills and an opportunity to maintain its residential character, open space and rural ambience through the political actions of its own residents and its own Town Council.”

Town Councils since then have maintained these values.  Here are the members of the 2014 Town Council.

2014 Town Council at Planning Retreat.
2014 Town Council at Planning Retreat.

The Story of Incorportion, Part IV

By October 1960 when the bid to incorporate was defeated, (owners of 55% of assessed valuation had protested) almost six years had gone by since that first meeting when residents met to start efforts to gain local control over local issues. Hours and hours of studies, meetings and surveys, and no progress. What to do, now that the impassioned protest of John Francis Neylan had convinced so many people that incorporation was a bad idea? Was incorporation really impossible? How about annexation?

Larry Lane expressed the worry about maintaining the status quo: “I think [county government] has done a good job of protecting the Valley so far. But we must face the fact that the Board of Supervisors will be forced to yield eventually to growing pressures for high density development here.”

Nevin Hiester echoed his concern: “The Board of Supervisors has lots of land to look after; we’re just a little part of it, a very small part of the whole.”

The fear was that the creation of SLAC would further open floodgates; applications were in for convalescent hospitals, Woodside was in a potential path for the Willow Freeway from Junipero Serra to Skyline; they might try to push the state to re-route it through Portola Valley. And there were those 1500 Neylan acres bought by real estate development company, Hare, Brewer and Kelley.

Nevertheless, some still preferred to rely on the county government. Hear the words of long-time resident “Big Louie” Kessich: “I think Portola Valley should be renamed Freedom Valley. …these people don’t realize how wonderful it is to have freedom from government. …You get a government here and pretty soon they’ll be telling you what you can do with your land and how to build your house.” Although others shared his view, especially large land owners, no one volunteered to research and present the case for the status quo.

However, when the Portola Valley Association created the Committee for Incorporation, they had also established the Committee to Study Portola Valley Development, directed to look into annexation to Woodside. The decision had been to try for incorporation first. While the Incorporation committee was gathering signatures, the PV Development committee was researching annexation. With incorporation a dead issue, at least for the time being, it was time to think seriously about annexation.

The Griffenhagen and Kroeger report had provided voluminous statistics about the two options. It turned out that there were several advantages to annexation. Property taxes would be a bit less than with incorporation. The cost of one government would be less than the costs of two. Woodside’s zoning ordinances would protect against high density development immediately; a new town would require time to put ordinances in place. The two towns had problems in common. A merged town could have wider influence over development in contiguous areas. A key benefit of annexation over incorporation would be that Woodside could change the proposed borders by only 5%; the county could set the borders of a new town wherever they wished.

Of course, there were disadvantages as well. Trying to govern too wide an area would mean too many compromises, and variances would be required. Individuality would be lost in the greater whole. The existing town might not be willing to modify its ordinances to suit the desires of their potential new townspeople. And, Portola Valley would be in a 4-3 minority. In fact, Woodside might not even be interested in considering annexation if a very strong majority of Portola Valley residents wasn’t in favor. And they weren’t.

In August of 1962, the Portola Valley Association formally voted to apply for annexation to Woodside. The committee assigned to study annexation, now called the Action Group for Local Control began preparing a document full of statistics for the Woodside Planning Commission. PV citizens began informal, exploratory talks with Woodside officials.

In April, 1963 the Action Group presented an application for annexation to the Woodside Planning Commission. The multi-page document, complete with charts, maps and detailed descriptions of every relevant issue and fact, excluded Ladera and Los Trancos Woods from the proposed boundaries, to make the application more favorable to the acreage ordinances of Woodside.

On June 6, in their report to the Woodside Town Council, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to reject annexation. A key objection was that PV large landowners had continued to be against the proposal. Stanford had asked to have its Biological Gardens of Searsville Lake removed from the boundaries. Ryland Kelley of Hare, Brewer and Kelley (owners of those 1500 Neylan acres) sent a letter protesting inclusion. “We do not believe that the joining together of these two large communities would provide a sound tax basis for proper community service anywhere within the new town. As owners of a large property it is to our interest to be under the jurisdiction of a governmental unit which is able to provide a high standard of services based on sound economic footing.”

Nevin Hiester: “This [rejection by the Planning Commission] is a crippling blow, but the Action Group will carry on the fight and ask the Town Council to rebut the report.”

And so they did. In June of 1963, the Woodside council delayed voting after hearing two hours of mostly pro-annexation comment. They wanted to hear more from Woodside residents. Petitions circulated around town presented predominately negative views of adding Portola Valley to their boundaries. More meetings followed. The council could reject the bid outright or choose to send the issue to the voters. (Portola Valley residents would then also vote.)

On November 13, 1963, the Woodside Town Council in a 5-2 vote gave a firm and final NO to the annexation of Portola Valley. One of the dissenters wanted further study of the implications of annexation. The other wanted the decision to be made by the voters rather than by the council.

Democracy is indeed a slow process. Almost eight years had gone by. However, events moved rapidly after this second failure to gain local control over local issues. On November 19, 1963, a week after the Woodside rejection, the Action Group once again got permission from the county to circulate a petition to incorporate.

 

 

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.