A piece of property at the base of Foothills Park's beautiful Las Trampas Valley, once the subject of closed-door discussions about selling it to developer John Arrillaga, has now resurfaced with the opposite intent.
The 7.7-acre site, located beyond the group picnic area parking lot at the very end of the road in Foothills Park, was given to the city in 1981 by the Russel V. Lee Trust. For unknown reasons it was never formally added to the park or dedicated as parkland. In fact, for some seven years, between 1996 and 2003, it was leased to Arrillaga for use as a storage and staging area for construction of his estate.
The parcel has never been accessible to the public and has amounted to a buffer between the park and a large privately owned compound that includes Arrillaga's residence, a private lake and arboretum.
The city has allowed Acterra, the environmental organization that oversees native-plant management and restoration in the nearby Arastradero Preserve, to operate a small nursery on it.
In addition to the parcel, the Lee Trust also gifted the city an easement over a dirt road that provides access from Los Trancos Woods Road in Portola Valley.
In what would otherwise have been an unremarkable and minor proposal to their City Council colleagues, a memo from Councilmembers Pat Burt, Greg Schmid and Karen Holman reveals that the 1981 gift came with a deed restriction requiring the city to use the property for "conservation, including park and recreation purposes."
The revelation that the land came with those requirements raises even more questions about the propriety of the city's discussions with Arrillaga in the fall of 2012.
In September 2012, unknown to the public at the time, the Council discussed in closed session an offer by Arrillaga to purchase the land for $175,000. Council members secretly visited the property in small groups to avoid the Brown Act's notice requirements, which might have drawn public attention to the possible land sale.
While the closed-door discussions were disclosed on council agendas as a "discussion on price and terms of payment" of a parcel identified only by parcel number, a Public Records Act request by the Weekly resulted in the release of a draft sale and purchase agreement for the land prepared by Arrillaga and emails between staff and council members making arrangements for visits to the property.
At the time, the council was also in the midst of discussing Arrillaga's massive proposal to develop office towers at 27 University Ave., and the secrecy of the foothills property negotiations raised questions about why the city was negotiating to sell a piece of public land to a developer with whom it was also negotiating a major development project.
At the time, neither council members nor city staff would publicly discuss the issue since it had been considered in closed session. Although City Attorney Molly Stump said the item would be placed on a regular council agenda so the public could learn what was under consideration and why, no such discussion ever occurred and the matter apparently simply died without further action. The public was never informed about the reasons or circumstances for any of the city's actions, including why it would enter into negotiations without having first discussed the policy issue, in public, of selling a piece of city-owned land.
With the revelation that the land was a gift to the city and came with a deed restriction limiting its use, we now wonder why the sale of this property was even brought to the City Council for consideration.
Why all the secrecy about this parcel, and why are we only now learning the background?
Councilmembers Burt, Schmid and Holman are right in bringing this item forward in a way that shines a light on the history of this parcel and how it was handled by the council two years ago.
Their recommendations that the parcel be dedicated as parkland, evaluated for alternative public uses and be permanently opened for public access is more than 20 years overdue, and we presume the full council will endorse those actions.
Now would also be an appropriate time for the city staff to explain to the public why, given what is now known about the history of the property and its deed restrictions, it ever entertained selling the property and failed to disclose these details or hold a single public discussion about them.