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Stegner's writing studio salvaged - for now

A complaint lodged last week by a national group of preservationists temporarily sidetracked a plan to demolish prize-winning author Wallace Stegner’s former South Fork Lane home and writing studio in Los Altos Hills to make way for a 7,323-square-foot home.

While town officials May 31 were ready to fast-track the new two-story construction, the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation sent a letter to Los Altos Hills alleging that the home’s historical significance warrants a more complete review. If true, it could delay the project for months.

“Since there is ample evidence that this unique site is eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources, we respectfully urge the Town to conduct (an) environmental review that analyzes alternatives to demolition before considering project approval,” reads the May 27 letter.

Brian Turner, regional attorney for the National Trust, said although the homeowners purchased the house on the open market, anyone in California should buy a property knowing “full well there are regulations in the state for the protection of historical resources.”

Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for “Angle of Repose” in 1972 and the National Book Award in 1976 for “The Spectator Bird.” He moved to Los Altos Hills in the early 1950s and forged a relationship with Stanford University, where he founded the school’s Creative Writing Program. Many herald Stegner, who died in 1993, as an early environmentalist and one of the town’s founders. Stegner’s heirs sold the home on the open market to Yew Nam and Wan Lei Yong for approximately $2.2 million in 2005.

Raymond Neal, the couple’s architect, told town officials Tuesday that the project’s application was complete prior to the letter and should go forward.

“The fact of the matter is, depending on how long (review) goes, we may miss our grading by Oct. 15,” he said in an interview, noting at the hearing that there could be a “financial impact” for the couple. “Then it’ll be pushed off until next spring because of construction restriction by the town.”

Debbie Pedro, Los Altos Hills planning director, said the National Trust’s letter arrived on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend before the first morning hearing on Tuesday.

“The town had zero chance to respond or appeal,” Neal said. “They had no choice but to delay proceedings.”

Pedro said fast-track approval is not an option if opposition arises prior to the public hearing.

“We would like to not be in this situation either,” Pedro said at the Tuesday hearing. “We will work with the city attorney to look at the CEQA determination.”

Turner said Monday that the town would hire an independent expert to evaluate the property’s historical significance. Pedro couldn’t be reached to confirm that.

While a handful of residents have been examining ways to relocate the structure from the hilltop property before demolition, just as many Tuesday urged the town to grant fast-track approval.

One neighbor said delaying the project would not “be fair to the new owners.”

“They put a lot of effort into it and they have a right to move forward,” he said.

But Alice Sakamoto, a member of the town’s History Committee who knew Stegner, said, “In addition to (the studio) being personally sentimental, to me (it) is the literary equivalent of the Hewlett-Packard garage.”

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