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Concerns grow over future of heritage apricot orchard


Alicia Castro/town crier
Los Altos native Cindy Riordan paints apricot trees in the Los Altos heritage orchard with members of the Peninsula Outdoor Painters. The orchard’s future remains up in the air.

As Cindy Riordan painted a landscape of apricot trees last week, she recalled her childhood spent playing amid their branches.

“There aren’t a lot of places like this,” the Los Altos native said of the city’s heritage orchard. “There’s plenty of development, but we need to have these kinds of places, too.”

Riordan isn’t alone in her belief. As conversations about land use at the Los Altos Civic Center heat up, opinions and information are percolating.

The city is in discussions with the Los Altos School District, for instance, regarding the viability of placing a school somewhere on the civic center property. Some residents see the possibility as a good use of limited public space; others worry about what may be lost.

But the matter isn’t purely about preservation. According to Los Altos resident Robin Chapman, it’s also about following city law.

Chapman, author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley,” has long been interested in preserving the area’s remaining historical orchards. It was only a few weeks ago that she uncovered a stack of resolutions and ordinances that protect the orchard.

“I feel like I found the Holy Grail,” she said. “But instead of a chalice, it’s a list of protection ordinances.”

City law protects the specific size, shape and make-up of the orchard, and prescribed steps dictate what the council must do to change the law. The orchard can’t be moved or made smaller without hearings at two commission levels and before the city council approves it.

“By law, the orchard is designated to be in this particular place,” Chapman said. “It is not possible to be negotiating for this space with the idea that some of it will be taken out and some will be saved.”

Public Lands Subcommittee

The council was slated to discuss the City of Los Altos/Los Altos School District Public Lands Subcommittee Tuesday, after the Town Crier’s press deadline. Mayor Jeannie Bruins and Councilwoman Jan Pepper provided an update on the subcommittee’s work and sought direction from the council. The subcommittee is considering three sites for a 10th Los Altos School District school: Egan Junior High, Covington School and the Los Altos Civic Center.

“There are no sacred cows on any of these properties,” Bruins said.

At the most recent subcommittee meeting in February, members agreed to engage an outside architect to draft a layout for all three properties. Criteria for the civic center site include maintaining its functionality and preserving the Los Altos History Museum, J. Gilbert Smith House, main library and part of the orchard.

“We will be seeking direction from the council as to whether the orchard should be included as part of the property that could be considered for a school,” Pepper told the Town Crier.

Previous councils have agreed to maintain a minimum of a half-acre apricot orchard on the 18-acre site, Bruins said. However, the current council has never weighed in.

“The council needs to decide whether we want to take all constraints off and let the architect give their best effort,” she said. “At this point in time, I have to say, I don’t see that we’re going to try to advance something that has all the orchard being wiped out.”

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