The Rathbuns bought property on Corte Madera Road in 1949 and in 1957 moved to Alpine Hills into a house they had designed and built. They had purchased their 2 acres in 1951, property Al believes to be the largest lot in the subdivision. At the time, Golden Oak was paved only to the end of their lot. When they saw a rattlesnake on the road, they wondered how many others were lurking around their property.
During the years when incorporation was being studied, Al carried petitions around the neighborhood, offering explanations about the advantages of local control of local issues and seeking signatures. He became a member of the first Planning Commission in 1964. At the beginning, the commission enforced county ordinances, which he says were lax and allowed almost anything, but they added more requirements as time passed. Even then they worried about the steepness of the slopes. He resigned because of a potential conflict of interest with his business, Earth Systems. He was also a founder of the Alpine Hills Investment Club, which, he says, was a ‘joke” at first, not making much money, but got better and was still in existence in 2009.
The Hopkins came in 1959 to Alpine Hills. Crystal’s husband told her to go out and find what she wanted.
She remembers that the view was like a picture. “You could look out and see the water of the bay,” she says. She remembers how bare the land was then, which made the views possible. Her mother kept a beautiful garden on the property, much admired by everyone.
Diane and John Vedder found Menlo Park prices too high for them when they were looking for a home in 1957. They now consider themselves very lucky to have found their Alpine Hills lot. In three months in 1959, they built their house.
Peak Lane was simply a chained-off fire road when they bought. By the time they moved in, it had been paved and declared a road. There were no trees at the top of the hills. There was an Alpine Hills Ladies Club for many years, and a group of young mothers took turns running their own day care center/preschools for their youngsters. They particularly remember with fondness the local postman. He knew everyone, took pleasure in delivering packages, never mis-delivered, and occasionally served as bartender at house parties.
When Judy and Bob Falconer were Stanford students, the unpaved lanes of Portola Valley were trysting places for young couples. Later, after they married and were looking for a home, they returned to those lanes. They talked to realtor Gordon Oberg who operated from a little house on the corner of Alpine and Golden Oak. who showed them property. To get up to the property they were considering, they had to get up a head of steam to make it up the gravel road.
They bought their lot in 1955 and moved in in 1956 when there were very few other houses. They paid $7000 for an acres and a quarter, “a lot of money,” they recall today. Many years later when they moved to Westridge, they were told that their Alpine Hills house was bulldozed and taken in pieces to Pacific islands to be used for other houses. When the driveway was being constructed at their new house, an remarkable Ohlone lance point was unearthed, dated by an archaeologist who specializes in the Ohlone from 2000 BC to 800 BC.
Although Ilsa Cauble’s husband Dale was a contractor who built spec houses around Menlo Park, she says he was an Oklahoma cowboy at heart. So in 1950, when they found “perfect” land with a pasture for two horses and a stream along the edge, they bought their Alpine Hills property. They made a wonderful riding ring. Sausal Road stopped midway then, and the rest of the way up was a steep hill, somewhat smoothed later by further development. Neighborhood kids would haul big pieces of cardboard to the top, climb aboard, and slide all the way down.
An operating-room nurse, she worked the 3-11 shift at the old Stanford hospital, now Hoover Pavilion. She remembers being told tales of local quarries from which kids would roll rocks down to Alpine Road for building the stone house at 4141 that was once the Manginis’ Picnic Park and today is home to Windmill School.
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.
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California