Eighty-seven-year-old Nonette Hanko stepped out of a Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District SUV last week into a blisteringly cold wind, under boiling clouds that threatened a storm at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. Perched behind her walker, the pioneer of open-space preservation took in breathtaking views of the picturesque mountains and valleys.
"Home, sweet home," Hanko said.
For most of her adult life, the petite woman with steel-gray hair and a soft, perky voice has done more than admire these grasslands, forests and hidden creeks. She has set about preserving them in perpetuity for her children and grandchildren, and for all of those who now immerse themselves in these wild spaces but who have never heard her name.
After 46 years on the board of directors of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, she retired on Feb. 1, leaving to others the task of acquiring and preserving land.
Riding up the serpentine Page Mill Road on her way to Monte Bello, she had gestured across the expanse of verdant forests.
"All of this is district land," she said.
Nearly five decades earlier, in 1972, such a reality seemed like an impossible dream to Hanko and others who joined her to get voter approval to create the district and obtain funding for land acquisitions through a property tax. In those days, powerful developers had wanted to cover the foothills with houses, she said.
Today, the district includes 63,495 acres in 26 preserves from the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay and from north of Half Moon Bay to south of Los Gatos. The organization operates on a roughly $70 million annual budget.
As a young woman, Hanko — an aspiring concert pianist and mother of four — seemed on the surface an unlikely candidate for mounting political battles against Stanford University, developers and city councils.
Hanko's son, Val, characterized his mother in the 1950s: "Mom in her 20s was extremely emotional. If she went in a grocery store and someone didn't treat her right she'd start crying," he recalled during her retirement party on Jan. 31. But that sensitivity, strongly emotional nature and passion is what enabled her to be so successful, he added.
And it was Hanko's passion for open space that initially propelled her — and kept motivating her — to action.
Her love of land began in her childhood in Burlingame, where her parents' home backed up to the Santa Cruz Mountain foothills. She played on the grounds of the 1,500-acre Darius Ogden Mills estate, the home of the Gold Rush adventurer, president of the Bank of California and one of the founding fathers of Burlingame. No one ever bothered her there, she said.
Hanko would climb through the barbed wire and try to roll down the hills on her roller skates. She would sit under a large oak tree where an owl roosted. It was silent — an immersive experience of just being. Among the trees and flowers, she was able "to enjoy how nature intended it to be," she said.
"I grew up thinking that people's gardens should be left to themselves. I assumed that any place I lived would be the same way," she said.
Her initial forays into political action began by trying to protect her own literal backyard when county leaders wanted to extend and expand Central Expressway through her Palo Alto neighborhood, removing houses and pushing the noisy roadway toward her property. (They didn't succeed.)
From there she began to make contacts, attend Palo Alto Planning Commission meetings and learn about development plans for the open spaces that she loved. Hanko recalled how her passion once caused her to cry when she went before the planning commission to present her views on a consultant's report for a housing-development plan in the foothills. Early on, she was a novice at public speaking, she said.
But one quality she did have was persistence, honed of a discipline that came from her training as a concert pianist. Hanko spent countless hours at meetings, going to city councils throughout Santa Clara County for support, canvassing the public and strategizing with environmentalists and attorneys.
"Nonette went from this 'I don't know what to do; I'm a piano teacher' to basically realizing what she had to do," said retired Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson, who was a reporter for the Palo Alto Times and has known Hanko since the 1960s. "She just took the bit in her teeth and formed that district. She had lots of allies. She just became the most powerful politician in the area. I told her, 'You do things that everybody agrees with — except the developers.'"
Her family supported her work. It got to be a joke at home that she had a "fifth child." But her children were smart enough that they took the initiative to do their homework on their own and pretty much let her do what she needed to do. They realized, she said, that she was doing something that was meant for them as well.
"I had to get used to making speeches and addressing groups. Because you have strong feelings about something, it just needs to be done. (When you) make the effort, the issue kind of solves itself. There were so many people who wanted this to succeed," she said.
Creating an open space district
From Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve in south Santa Clara County to Ravenswood Preserve in East Palo Alto, countless places people enjoy every day were acquired by the district: Bear Creek Redwoods; Fremont Older; Los Trancos and Monte Bello; Rancho San Antonio; Russian Ridge; Windy Hill; Picchetti Ranch, which still has a working winery and tastings, and others.
Monte Bello remains one of her favorites. Hanko walked down the Stevens Creek Nature Trail and took a seat on the Frances Brenner bench, named after a Palo Alto planning commissioner who first brought Monte Bello to her attention for preservation. The bench affords a look down the San Andreas Fault rift zone. The fault over the years has left a stunning rip in the earth that today is filled with oak forests and grasslands teeming with rabbits and deer. Stevens Creek runs south along this zone, watering a canopy of California bay trees and others in the forest.
Hanko co-founded the Palo Alto Civic League to advocate for residents' conservation concerns before the City Council and met Brenner at that time. The council and planning commission were grappling with what to do with the Palo Alto foothills. Brenner — who had done a study on the impacts of development on the Columbia River watershed in Oregon for the League of Women Voters — took commissioners and other interested residents to the area now known as Monte Bello.
The visit was an eye-opener, Hanko said: She was staring at the bulk of the Stevens Creek watershed, which fed the land all the way to the bay.
Though the City Council had already denied a proposal to build 1,776 homes and a supporting commercial area in the lower Palo Alto foothills, other proposals were being pushed for the upper Skyline Ridge and beyond, Thorwaldson said.
"After the huge development push of the 1950s that supplanted the apricot and prune orchards of what once was known as 'The Valley of Heart's Delight' with subdivisions and businesses, developers began looking at surrounding areas to keep up the expansionist boom," he said at Hanko's retirement party.
"Dean & Dean Construction quietly began acquiring land options along the San Mateo County coast. County officials — especially San Mateo County officials at the time — were strongly pro-development," he said.
One major strategy to slow down or discourage development was through zoning, he said. Palo Alto tried to rezone the minimum lot size along Skyline from 10-acre to 40-acre minimum lots, which landowners opposed but for which Hanko and others advocated.
She lobbied the point with Thorwaldson, insisting that he write articles about open-space preservation.
"In self-defense, I said to her that zoning was a defeatist approach because it could be overturned easily by some future board or council and because it was unfair to landowners," Thorwaldson recalled. "I told her environmentalists needed to do what they did in the East Bay in 1933 — the depth of the Great Depression — and form a park district and buy the land at fair market value, in order to safely preserve it in perpetuity."
Hanko initially rebuffed the idea of residents taking on that task. She felt it was the city's job to form the district, which she and members of the Palo Alto Civic League planned to support.
But Thorwaldson told her the city would not form such a district. It was more worried about things such as garbage and the undergrounding of utilities, he said.
In a Feb. 16, 1970, Palo Alto Times editorial, Thorwaldson wrote that it was time for residents who lived in the flatlands and who were looking to regulate land use in the mountains to set up a district rather than wait for the city to do so. Palo Alto was already spending $144,000 on a two-year environmental-design study pertaining to the Palo Alto hills area, but while each side was trying to work its own angle in response to the outcome, other broad-reaching developments were in the wings: a 530-acre proposal for high-density housing in the lower foothills was making its way through the city approval process; property owners in the upper hills were putting together an investment group that would combine development and environmental protection where it would do the least amount of damage; and San Mateo County officials were ignoring or unable to control development and logging interests.
The overall effect: Conservation groups were fighting their battles piecemeal and would not effectively be able to save open space.
Hanko read the editorial and cried, she said, knowing from their previous arguments about a district that Thorwaldson was directing the editorial at her.
But by the next morning, she'd had an epiphany.
"It was just something that hit like that, and I said to myself, 'God, what a wonderful opportunity. So let's see what I can do," she recalled in a 2015 oral history of her work with the open-space district, which was published by the U.C. Berkeley Bancroft Library.
Hanko put together a group in her home, meeting over her blueberry coffeecake. Members included Brenner, Mary Gordon and Herb Grench of the planning commission (Grench later became the district's first general manager); attorney Larry Klein, who later served on the city council; and lawyer Fadlo Mouslalam, among others.
They set about having the League of Women Voters, local Boy Scouts and other groups help them with a poll to determine what uses people wanted for the hills and mountains. To be fair, they also included development as an option, she said. A whopping 79 percent of people wanted open space, she said.
They decided on a district that would cover San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. But the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, it turned out, wasn't interested. Many supervisors were receiving their support from landowners who wanted to develop their properties, she said.
So the group went to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to form the district, she said, which would also require buy-in from the city councils within the county. They spent an exhausting amount of time going to the different councils to get their support, eventually winning agreement, she said.
But there was one hitch: The county wanted quid pro quo support from the group for one of its own initiatives, which it placed on the June 1972 ballot. The group backed up the county, and the measure won.
Then the district supporters put Measure R, the "Room to Breathe" initiative, on the November 1972 ballot for a property tax of 10 cents per $100 of assessed value. District board members representing five wards were also to be voted on: Bill Peters, Dan Condron, Dan Wenden, Kay Duffy — and Hanko.
It wasn't difficult to convince her to run for a board seat, she said.
With a presidential election that same November, Hanko said, there was a big turnout. And Measure R passed by 67.71 percent.
A tiny 212-acre piece of land across from Palo Alto's Foothills Park was the first property the district purchased. Called Foothills Open Space Preserve, it was just 90 acres in 1974.
Hanko remembered how it used to be a place where a group of young men, "counterculture people," she said, liked to take their clothes off.
They were upset at first when the land was acquired, but the ranger didn't think there were any laws preventing their nude gathering, so he didn't see a reason why they couldn't carry on.
"I thought that was nice," Hanko said.
On using eminent domain
The formation of the district was the first of many battles, victories and prolonged skirmishes that Hanko and her colleagues have navigated.
In November 1976, the district put a ballot measure before voters to annex the southern portion of San Mateo County — Atherton, Redwood City, Portola Valley, Menlo Park, Woodside, San Carlos and East Palo Alto — with the help of another grassroots group, Committee for Green Foothills, spearheaded by Lennie Roberts and Harry Turner.
Proposition D appeared on the ballot in November 1975 and passed by 500 to 600 votes, Thorwaldson recalled. It had also received the support of the Palo Alto Times.
The district also helped create a nonprofit organization, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), which bought properties from landowners who wanted to avoid disclosing the sale amount to the public, which would have been necessary had the district made the purchase. The district took over management of some of these POST-owned lands, Hanko said.
Though Midpen has acquired some land from donations and others through purchases, it has also on occasion taken land through eminent domain. In 46 years, it has exercised eminent domain just 16 times out of an estimated 800 or more land deals, the district confirmed.
Hanko does not take eminent domain lightly. It is taking property away from someone for the greater public good, she said, but it still needs to be used rarely.
"It should only be used as a last resort. It's not a law we like to use," she said. But when a major development threatens an area or when it is a benefit for the seller, Hanko is not against using eminent domain.
In 2015, after three years of fruitless negotiation, the district board voted 7-1 to start eminent domain proceedings for the first time in 20 years against private landowners on Mt. Umunhum in the Sierra Azul Preserve in Los Gatos. The district sought to acquire 19 acres of property and a 40-foot-wide easement of more than 1.5 miles and a 200-yard-long section of roadway that would provide access to the mountain's summit. The district eventually used eminent domain to purchase those properties for more than $1 million.
One of the district's more perilous attempts at eminent domain was an acquisition of 284 acres from a group of elderly, cloistered nuns. In 1998, the nuns of the Russian Convent of Our Lady of Vladimir wanted to build a 100-acre monastery overlooking the ocean on a pristine ridge on Skyline Boulevard, south of Route 92. For 50 years, the nuns had already been persecuted in Russia and China.
The nuns rejected all kinds of negotiations, including a land swap in Los Gatos, Hanko recalled. The nuns wanted a view of the ocean.
"There were no knock-down, drag-outs with them, but they were in charge. They wanted to do everything their own way. They were all very independent women," she said.
The district board voted 5-1 to acquire the property through eminent domain at fair-market value, according to news reports. The decision sparked outraged, and eventually the eminent domain idea was scrapped.
The church decided to sell the property to the district after realizing the nuns — already in their 80s and 90s — wouldn't be happy living in the wind and fog, Hanko recalled.
The battle with the nuns came at a bad time for the district, which was also seeking to expand its boundaries to preserve open space in coastal San Mateo County in an area south of Devil's Slide near Pacifica.
"There was a great deal of fear about our use of eminent domain," Hanko said, especially from the agricultural community. Then-Supervisor Mike Nevin, who represented the coastside, blasted the district as "property predators in conservationists' clothing," according to news reports.
But Hanko said she spent much time talking to people on the phone and in person after public meetings. She always took a collaborative approach rather than an adversarial one as a way to achieve everyone's goals.
"We gave them reassurance that we weren't really out to get them. It took a little time and convincing. We wanted everybody to succeed," she said.
Thorwaldson remembered her persuasive powers: "All alone on her own initiative, she meets with the ag people and says, 'We love agricultural open space. We will agree not to use eminent domain on the coast.' She won them over virtually single-handedly."
The district finally passed its Coastside Protection Program in September 2004 after seven years, extending its boundary to the Pacific Ocean from Pacifica to the Santa Cruz County line.
Passing on the torch
Hanko said she never thought that saving the open spaces would take decades.
"It's something you just fall into," she said of her life's work.
But it's gratifying that "the longer we've existed, the more people seem to care about their open space," she said.
Public confidence was borne out when two-thirds of voters in June 2014 approved Measure AA, a $300 million general obligation bond for the acquisition of open space and for opening up and improving existing preserves.
But she noted that a new generation will have to remain vigilant and carry on the vision of so many of her friends and neighbors.
"Many of my friends have died. Almost every name of people I knew who were excited about saving open space are gone," she said.
Hanko, in fact, was just one of a group of women — also including Betsy Crowder and Mary Davey — whom today's environmentalists credit with protecting the spaces many now take for granted.
"They laid the foundation for POST's work," Walter Moore, president of POST, said. Their efforts "resulted in the legacy of preservation of the beauty of the area."
And that legacy still needs protecting, Hanko observed recently.
With concerns over Stanford University's current proposed revision of its general-use permit and suspicions by some that the university could have a long-term goal of expansion into the foothills, Hanko said the district holds a key to keeping such plans in check.
Theirs is a wary relationship that dates back decades. In 1965, as vice president of the Committee for Green Foothills, Hanko and the nonprofit engaged in a protracted fight against Stanford University, which wanted to build an animal research lab at Coyote Hill, a large greenspace on the south side of Page Mill Road across from the Dish.
Ultimately, Coyote Hill was preserved as open space because of public pressure and the Palo Alto Planning Commission, which curtailed the university's plan.
The district does have the ability to obtain university land through its eminent domain powers, but Hanko said the university isn't taking any actions thus far that would cause the district to intervene.
"So long as they stay where they are, they're OK," she said.
At Los Trancos Open Space Preserve last week, Hanko and her granddaughter Rebecca Rush rested beside a newly installed sign on a trail that is now named the Nonette Hanko San Andreas Fault Trail. Hundreds of schoolchildren have visited the faultline trail to learn about California's most famous geological feature. Having a place that offers educational opportunities that can deepen public awareness and appreciation makes her glad, she said.
The rift zone has long fascinated Hanko, with its varied plant life and geologic formations, including granite that migrated with the fault over eons from southern California to make up parts of Windy Hill.
"Grandpa and I took that trail as far as we could," she said of the fault that comes out of the Pacific Ocean at Point Reyes and goes all the way to Los Angeles.
"It goes through private property and government property," she told her granddaughter.
Asked what her plans are for the future, Hanko said she wants to work on projects closer to home to make sure that city leaders follow through on protecting Palo Altans' quality of life.
But she also has a grander scheme in mind for the foothills, and it's one she hopes the new district board will take seriously. She'd like to see all of the San Andreas rift zone trail area acquired by the district, from its beginnings in Marin County to southern California, so that people can hike the entire length.