The 3-2 vote tally on Tuesday (Dec. 13) was different from the unanimity of votes in 2006 and 2010, but the outcome was the same: the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors rejected an inflation-adjusted offer of $10.4 million from Stanford University to upgrade a deteriorating asphalt path that runs along the south side of Alpine Road between Portola Valley and Menlo Park.
The offer, which would also have paid for studies of trail design and environmental impacts, sharply divided the unincorporated communities of Ladera, where upgrading the path was uncomplicated, and Stanford Weekend Acres, where the complications were many.
The board faced a Dec. 31 deadline, after which Stanford's offer for a two-year extension will expire. Board President Carole Groom and supervisors Adrienne Tissier and Rose Jacobs Gibson rejected a motion proposed by Supervisor Don Horsley and seconded by Supervisor Dave Pine to ask Stanford for the extension.
The board chambers, which seats 115, was half empty by the time of the vote but standing room only at the start of the discussion. Groom said she received requests to speak from 60 people, a turnout similar to the November meeting, when speakers had 90 seconds each; this time, they had 60.
A few people, many of them opponents of Stanford's offer, stayed in the hallway outside the board chambers after the decision.
"Incredible relief is what I feel," said Lennie Roberts, an environmental activist and resident of Ladera who had urged the board repeatedly not to take the money. "It was anybody's guess as to the outcome," she added. "I think in the end, the women recognized how you (can) impose this on a community."
"I'm amazed it was that close," Weekend Acres resident Walter Nelson said, adding that he credited the decision to research that showed extreme danger in building a multi-use trail next to a busy road, research he said he expected to be ignored.
"It's over," Stanford spokesman Larry Horton said. It has been Horton's job since 2006 to present Stanford's offer and be an ear witness to diatribes from Weekend Acres residents characterizing him and his employer as having base and ulterior motives. "The board has acted," Horton added. "We accept that with good faith."
"I don't know how an elected official can turn down a study and $10 million in private money. I'm very disappointed," said Portola Valley Councilwoman Maryann Moise Derwin, who spoke to the board in favor of Stanford's offer.
Though public comment was about evenly split, advocates for Stanford's offer were few in the hallway after the meeting. P.J. Utz, a Ladera resident and ardent advocate of upgrading the path, spoke at the meeting but commented via email: "The Supervisors have spoken," he said.
Tissier and Jacobs Gibson disliked the way that six design options -- Stanford's original three plus three more proposed by the supervisors -- became three with any practical chance of happening.
Of the three original options, one would have moved sections of Alpine Road north to make room for an adequate trail on the south side of the road. The other would have left Alpine Road alone and made do without the extra space on the south side of the road.
The third option would have studied the problem but done nothing if the study showed that the path could not be made safe.
The supervisors added three more on Nov. 1.
One option would have built a trail that crosses Alpine at Piers Lane and hugs the north side of the road to Stowe Lane. This option would have meant excavating the bottom of the hill to widen the right-of-way and make room for a street-level trail.
A second option would run the trail across Alpine Road at Piers Lane and send it up the hill and across open space. But whose open space? That owned by Stanford or that owned by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Either way, the trail would have been out of sight of Alpine Road.
Supervisors preferred the SLAC option, apparently because it would avoid a return to Alpine Road at Stowe Lane by descending a steep hillside via a series of switchbacks. But the SLAC option seemed unlikely, supervisors said, because security concerns would have required approval by SLAC and the Department of Energy. That left the switchback route.
Finally, the supervisors added an option to upgrade the existing trail on the south side of Alpine Road from Portola Valley to Piers Lane at the SLAC entrance, and stop the trail there. Stanford would not "under any circumstances" pay to build this option, according to the staff report.
"We get the opportunity to have an impact on a neighborhood that is concerned about the impact," Tissier said, summing up her view of the board's options. "We can take the money and study three options. I have a real concern with that."
Groom basically asserted San Mateo County's ownership of the path and its problems, and suggested more traditional ways of addressing them.
The county can repair the cracks and bumps of the existing path to make it useful to pedestrians.
The county can seek grants to address the eroding creek bank, and enlist the help of the Joint Powers Board for San Francisquito Creek.
The county can revisit the idea of a regional grant for recreational trails, funded in part with Stanford's $10.4 million, which goes to Santa Clara County if the San Mateo County do not change their minds before Dec. 31.
Serious bicyclists would not use the trail in any case, and they have legitimate bike lanes on Alpine Road.
In support of taking Stanford's offer for a two-year extension, Horsley cited the generally held view that the path is unsafe as it is and that creek bank needs attention.
Even if Stanford had an ulterior motive in improving the path, this was a study, Horsley noted, adding that he had confidence that the board and the staff would not be outsmarted. "I feel like we have to do something," he said. "I don't see how leaving it alone will make it safe."
"My position on this," Pine began, "is going to disappoint people I have tremendous respect for. I have to do what I believe to be in the public interest broadly."
"Stanford is offering us $10 million. We don't have $10 million to work on this corridor. We just don't." A trail on Stanford land is not going to happen, he said. It's not known who will benefit, who will use the trail, whether it will be safe, whether it will cause hardships to Weekend Acres, he pointed out.
The divisiveness would continue for another eight or nine months, but, he added: "The divisiveness is of our own making."
He said he could not conclude that doing nothing is better than doing something. "To those of you who I've disappointed, it's my best assessment of the situation," Pine said.
In many places on the public right of way near Weekend Acres, the path is close to the width of a common sidewalk, about four feet.
Notably absent from this project were renderings of what an improved trail might look like. Stanford's agreement with Santa Clara County discussed an eight-foot-wide Class 1 trail, but trail width was an open question, as Stanford spokesman Larry Horton reiterated at the Dec. 13 meeting.
Pine broached the idea -- and returned to it many times -- of a four-foot trail from Portola Valley to Menlo Park at the Dec. 13 meeting. It could have been Option 7, he said in a telephone interview.
The idea came in feedback from opponents of the two-way multi-use trail, Pine said.
A sidewalk that addresses pedestrian needs, would probably be used by kids, follows the existing path and relegates most bike traffic to the bike lanes: it was probably the only solution with a chance of winning the approval of Weekend Acres residents, Pine said.
"If that had been listed (as an option), would there have been three votes for it? I don't know," he said.
Before casting her vote, Tissier did question county staff on the feasibility of a path four feet wide over its entire length.