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Happy 65th birthday, Los Altos Hills

Los Altos Hills
Courtesy of the Town of Los Altos Hills
In the 1950s, most of Los Altos Hills was blanketed in apricot orchards. The town was incorporated in 1956.

To quote Los Altos Hills historian and Planning Commissioner Jitze Couperus, the town “may now be eligible for a pension.”

Or Medicare coverage, at least.

Los Altos Hills, incorporated Jan. 10, 1956, celebrated its 65th birthday last month, Couperus pointed out in a recent emailed note sent to Mayor Kavita Tankha, City Manager Carl Cahill and “select members of town staff.”

Tankha thanked Couperus via email for spreading the news.

Rex Gardiner
Courtesy of Town of Los Altos Hills
A hand-drawn map town co-founder Rex Gardiner created to show incorporation boundaries.

“Los Altos Hills is truly the last outpost of rural living!” she said. “It took great vision on the part of our founders to incorporate as a town and preserve this semi-rural way of life for a future generation of residents.”

The Town Crier, founded in 1947, consisted of mostly shopping advertisements in 1956 and likely didn’t cover the incorporation, according to Los Altos History Museum representatives, but the event proved big news among other local publications.

“The Midpeninsula has a new city – Los Altos Hills,” the Daily Palo Alto Times announced in a Jan. 11, 1956, article.

“All hail California’s new city! All hail the county’s fourteenth city!” exclaimed a Jan. 13, 1956, Los Altos News editorial.

At the time, only an estimated 2,500 people lived in the 9-square-mile, unincorporated Santa Clara County community then known as the Los Altos Foothills (today, the population of Los Altos Hills is closer to 8,500). Approximately 1,200 were eligible to vote. By a narrow margin – 424 to 339 – residents approved incorporation. They also elected the town’s first council: Leighton M. Bledsoe, T.A. Duncan, Arthur E. Fowle, Dr. C. Easton Rothwell and Sidney W. Treat.

“I do hope those who voted ‘no’ will now pitch in and help – bringing their wants and criticisms to the council instead of bottling them up,” the Times quoted Treat as saying. “This is the American way and I feel confident the people in this community will do this.”

The late George Rex Gardiner, who moved his family to the Foothills in 1950, initially hoped to number among the council members, but his employer, PG&E, disapproved, said Vicki Taylor, Gardiner’s daughter. Today, however, Gardiner is recognized as one of the co-founders of Los Altos Hills.

“Some people could not see the vision that my dad and the other people had,” Taylor said. “They weren’t just idealistic. They were visionaries and can-do people. They and their wives were, like, ‘The war’s over. Let’s build something. We can do it. American can-do.’”

‘Green Sheets’: Preserving the future

In a 2013 oral history interview conducted by Couperus and former town mayor Ginger Summit, Gardiner credited his neighbor, Bill Simrell, with planting the seed for incorporation.

incorporation ballot
Courtesy of Town of Los Altos Hills
The ballot for determining Los Altos Hills' incorporation included selections for the town’s first city council.

Simrell feared the Foothills might merge with Palo Alto or Los Altos, and the community’s 1-acre lot standard would disappear, Gardiner told Couperus and Summit.

PG&E also incentivized Gardiner, he admitted during the interview. Palo Alto had its own utilities company, and if that city annexed the Foothills, PG&E would lose customers.

“So they gave Dad a year’s paid salary to help incorporate it,” Taylor said.

Thomas Sherlock, a member of the town’s first Planning Commission, is also recognized as a Hills founder. He’s among those who helped form the “Green Sheets,” documents describing why incorporation was necessary and detailing Los Altos Hills’ guiding principles, including maintaining a rural atmosphere.

“We want the sun and air and quiet of a community which has given itself enough space to breathe in; the relaxed pace of country life and rural pursuits, and the space and right to keep animals – rabbits, chicken, dogs, sheep, cattle, horses,” according to the document.

Sherlock died in 1963 during his term as the town’s vice mayor, but his daughter, Joan Sherlock, still lives in town – on Sherlock Road, the street named for him.

Incorporation, Joan Sherlock said, just made sense to her father.

“There were those who didn’t feel that way, but the guys who built out the town’s ‘Green Sheets’ really believed in what they were putting together there and founding the town the way it was with the kind of dedication to open space and everything else,” she said. “There’s beauty to that.”

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