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.
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.
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.
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.
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.