Los Altos Hills council abandons wordsmithing


A week after deciding to edit policy language to soften Los Altos Hills’ enforcement of the town’s pathways mandate, the city council has abandoned pursuing the matter.

“We’re not touching a word, gang,” Councilman John Radford said at a specially scheduled March 8 council meeting.

His assurance, directed at a cluster of pro-pathways residents who spoke against the change, elicited cheers as the group filed out of council chambers and into the night.

The word in question is “shall.” The council, members of the town’s Planning Commission, representatives from the Pathways Committee and dozens of residents spent nearly three hours at a Feb. 28 joint meeting debating how stringently the town should impose its policy of requiring pathway access for every home; new construction triggers a review process of the subject property and the feasibility and cost of building an adjacent path if one doesn’t already exist. Some residents oppose the mandate on grounds including excessive cost, invasion of privacy and seizure of property. They believe officials should swap the word “shall” for “should” within Policy 1.1 of the pathways element, as in, “All residents of the Town should have immediate access adjacent or directly across the street from their residence to a pathway or pathways.”

Councilmembers presumably agreed at the Feb. 28 meeting and set out to discuss the topic further March 8. They were to provide town staff with direction and the staff would solicit a recommendation from the Pathways Committee, which would present its recommendation to the Planning Commission. The commission would then mull the recommendation at a public meeting and forward its own recommendation to the council. At that point, the council would host another public meeting about the recommendation. Then, and only then, could “should” usurp “shall.”

But nobody seemed to relish the idea of additional meetings and all the inevitable corresponding debate.

“I’m not willing to sit through these public meetings and have everybody up in arms and divide the room: ‘I hate the pathways,’ ‘I love the pathways,’ ‘You’re against the pathways,’ ‘You’re for the pathways,’” Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan said. “It is ludicrous, and it is a waste of everyone’s time.”

Exceptions to the rule

Town officials don’t impose the policy as written, anyway; there are circumstances when a pathway proposal is nixed because it doesn’t make physical or financial sense.

“We’re arguing over something we don’t follow,” Radford said. “So there’s a debate here whether anything needs to be done because we don’t do it the way we say we’re going to do it. We always have exceptions.”

The Planning Commission received all the direction it needs at that Feb. 28 joint meeting, councilmembers reasoned. Commissioners should consider priority, cost, feasibility, resident support and other factors when deciding whether a new pathway is warranted or not.

Rather than wordsmithing, councilmembers said, the focus should be on finishing the master path plan update – a project ongoing since 2015 – and maintaining the existing 94 miles of paths, sections of which are damaged due to recent rains.

“We should keep the peace in town instead of changing the word and stir up the town, get residents upset,” Councilwoman Michelle Wu said. “We should continue to improve the pathway system, the actual paths. … I would say focus on the real pathway, make it better, instead of fighting on the word.”

The Planning Commission’s next meeting is scheduled 7 p.m. April 6.

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