Hills meeting affirms council’s commitment to autonomy

Los Altos Hills Town Hall
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier File Photo
Deciding whether or not to proceed with plans to remodel part of Los Altos Hills’ town hall is among the city council’s priorities for 2021.

Prior to Los Altos Hills’ goal-setting meeting Friday, moderator Nancy Hetrick privately met with city council members to suss out topics and projects each considered priorities for 2021. She said all five members led with fire safety and emergency preparedness. 

“Certainly it’s very raw and real given the fires of the fall,” said Hetrick, vice president of local government consulting firm Management Partners.

The devastating CZU August Lightning Complex fires of 2020 burned within miles of Los Altos Hills and prompted evacuation warnings for communities bordering the town. The looming danger, council members said, underscored the importance of ongoing endeavors such as undergrounding utilities, communicating efficiently with residents about threats and risks, and preserving control of the Los Altos Hills County Fire District despite calls for its consolidation.

“Control,” in general, emerged as a common theme of last week’s meeting, a routine map-making exercise for navigating the coming year.

In addition to retaining the fire district’s authority and the valued fire abatement services it provides, council members expressed determination to follow the tenets of Los Altos Hills’ “Green Sheets” – founding documents likened to a constitution or to the Federalist Papers – and preserve the town’s semi-rural atmosphere by maintaining its 1-acre-minimum lot size standard. With that goal in mind, they mulled methods for pushing back against state-enforced rules meant to address California’s affordable housing crisis.

The Housing Element and Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) mandate requires the Bay Area to construct a total of 441,000 new homes between 2023 and 2031. So far, Los Altos Hills is responsible for defining realistic ways to produce 489 of them, including 125 for families with very-low incomes, or those earning less than 50% of the area’s median income.

There’s also the threat of State Senate Bill 9, proposed legislation that would streamline the process for building multi-unit housing in single-family residential zones.

Mayor Kavita Tankha said the town has been in talks with neighboring communities like Los Altos to pool resources, provide the Hills with more sway and stress that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t, in fact, fit all towns.

“Communities like Los Altos Hills are fewer, and the wealthy communities are fewer,” Tankha said at last week’s meeting. “The reality is that we have a very left-leaning legislature in Sacramento right now, which is pushing things like more affordable housing. So we really need to come together to get our voices heard.”

Newly elected council members weighed in as well.

Linda Swan suggested the town strategically emphasize its unique vulnerability to wildfire, earthquake faults and treacherous topography, obstacles to increasing housing density.

But a not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, approach would likely not play well with state lawmakers, Lisa Schmidt said.

“Housing is an important part of the Bay Area, and we need housing,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense, I think, for various logistical reasons, to have it in Los Altos Hills, but we have to participate in a solution and not just say we don’t want this here.”

Evaluating priorities

Also Friday, the council agreed to continue evaluating various projects undertaken and/or considered by the past council, including some that could potentially improve the working lives of staff members.

While in office, former council members Courtenay C. Corrigan and Roger Spreen spearheaded an effort to determine whether the town’s volunteer committees could be structured more efficiently. They believed enforcing committee-member term limits and requiring council approval of associate members would attract new volunteers, the implication being that increased turnover might unseat overly authoritative voices accused of draining staff energy and time.

Initial plans for the proposed town hall addition are still in the works, with the project estimated to cost between $3.5 million and $4 million. It involves enclosing a patio behind the council chambers to create a 395-square-foot conference room and replacing the 880-square-foot Parks and Rec building with 2,810 square feet of multipurpose space.

Although Tankha previously voted against the expansion because she didn’t think it would generate enough square footage to justify the price, she acknowledged visits to town hall have since convinced her that staff members operate under cramped conditions.

Councilmember Stanley Q. Mok noted similar observations and pointed out the remodel isn’t all about added square footage; reconfiguration will provide better utilization of the space, which could prove valuable should forthcoming housing legislation create more work for the building department.

Before committing to anything, however, Tankha first wants to revisit the town’s financial obligations.

“Is this the time for us to take on such huge investments given that we’re going to be talking about undergrounding?” she said. “You know, yes, we all have a wish list. Let’s prioritize what we really want to see.”

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