Lester D. Earnest

12769 Dianne Drive; Los Altos Hills, CA 94022

Email Les@cs.stanford.edu                      Phone  650-941-3984

April 13, 2012

 

Town of Los Altos Hills Planning Department

26379 Fremont Road

Los Altos Hills, CA 94022

 

Subject: Mitigated Negative Declaration for the property at 13456 South Fork Lane

 

A formal review of the historical importance of the former property of author Wallace Stegner that has just been released [1] concludes that his former study should be preserved because of its historical significance. However it then proposes to "preserve" it by dropping it in a black hole and claims that conforms with state regulations covering such preservation. In my view that is an invalid conclusion, as discussed below.

 

The cited document contains some historical and other errors but happily recognizes the historical significance of Stegner’s Study and advocates preserving it. However it proposes that both the house and the dilapidated old cottage be demolished and that the Study be moved to the inaccessible location of the cottage, which is on a steep slope in the dark part of the forest, a rather different environment from its current location on a sunny hilltop. The owner apparently wants to continue using it as a cottage, which is the way it has been used in recent years.

 

That certainly does not look to me like an attempt at preservation and seems to go against some of the historical preservation regulations that the report claims to uphold. I have been attempting to reach the owner to discuss alternatives such as our proposal to move the study to another site where it would be turned into a Stegner museum, which the owner agreed to earlier. However I have been unable to reach him so far.

 

The accompanying Notice of Intent [2] says that comments on this proposal must be submitted to the Town by April 30 at 5:00pm in the manner described there. Public hearings on this matter are scheduled before the Planning Commission on May 3 at 7:00pm and before the Council on June 21 at 7:00pm. I suggest that interested people mark those dates and times on your calendar.

 

Errors and inconsistencies

There is an odd inconsistency in terminology used in the CEQA review [1]. As we learned from members of the Stegner family long ago, Wallace Stegner called the place where he did his writing a “study.” The report uses that term for the first place he used--actually they call it “study/guest cottage,” given that it was later expanded into living quarters. However they call his newer study a “writing studio” for no apparent reason. The notes below will use the terms “cottage” and “study,” in order to be consistent with Stegner’s terminology. The remarks below are keyed to the page and paragraph numbers of [1].

 

p. 10.9  “The applicant is proposing to preserve the writing studio and relocate it to the site of the former study/guest cottage west of the main residence on the property.”

 

The site of the cottage is downhill from the residence. That is a dark place on a steep slope in the middle of a dense forest with very limited sight lines and is a radically different place from where the study is currently located--a sunny spot at the top of a hill overlooking an oak forest--and is relatively inaccessible. However that arguably wouldn’t matter much because it would not be open to the public.

 

In order to move the study into the forest location it likely would have to be dismantled and reconstructed on the new site. Alternatively it might be possible to cut some of the overhanging tree limbs and lift the building intact using a high performance helicopter and drop it into the proposed site. In either case it likely would be necessary to abandon the existing bathroom at one end, so in order to use it as a cottage the owners would likely want to build a new bathroom on the new site. All of this would cost the owners much more than our offer to move the study away at no cost to them to become a museum but that would mean that if they want a separate cottage they would have to build one.

 

p. 26.4 “This report has reviewed all potential impacts and the new residence project and the relocation of the writing studio do not have any foreseeable or unmitigated impacts as defined in this initial study.”

 

I believe that moving the study to a dark place on a steep slope in the middle of the forest with no view actually would have a very foreseeable impact. That arguably would be not much different from demolishing it.

 

p. 35.6 “Ohlone Indians were the first known residents of Los Altos Hills.”

 

That statement, which is taken from the “Town History” web page, is incorrect in that they were the last native group here before the European invasion, not the first. The Town History web page is evidently based on Florence Fava’s fake history [3], which is full of errors.  I’ve been trying to get it fixed since 2008 and will keep trying.

 

The ancestors of the Ohlone probably arrived here around 8,000 years ago, when there was no San Francisco Bay because of lower sea levels coming out of the last Ice Age. However, the earliest people arrived here at least 16,000 years ago and probably much earlier. Unfortunately they all died in an environmental disaster about 12,900 years ago that likely was caused by a comet or meteor impact on the North American ice sheet in the vicinity of the Great Lakes. It killed all plant life in North America for a time with the result that large land animals all starved to death, including mammoths, giant bison, giant tree sloths, camels, several kinds of horses and many others. As a further result, the human hunters also starved to death as did other predators such as the large saber tooth cats that lived here. This region was eventually repopulated with both humans and smaller animals coming from Asia and Central America.

 

p. 36.2 “Following roughly the path of today’s Fremont Road, Juan Bautista De Anza passed through what was to become Los Altos Hills while making his journey from Monterey to San Francisco in 1776 to establish the Presidio.”

 

This is another false claim from the Town History web page that was fabricated by Florence Fava, the former Town Historian, in order to justify participating in the U.S. Bicentennial Celebrations of 1976. It was used at the time as a basis for getting the Town to put up two stone monuments on Fremont Road with bronze plaques making the same erroneous claim. There was also a fake reenactment of this non-event using costumed horsemen. In 2010 I convinced the Town History Committee and the Council that the fake monuments should be removed [4] and, with support from the National Park Service, that happened a short time later.

 

p. 36.6 “Both Morgan Manor and Griffin House are official Town Historical Landmarks.”

 

That is incorrect. Title 11 of the Municipal Code [5] specifies procedures for designating historical landmarks, but despite elaborate preservation goals stated in the Conservation section of the Town’s General Plan [6], those procedures have been consistently ignored, with the result that no such landmarks have been designated. There is an Inventory of Historical Sites and Structures [7] in Appendix 4a to the General Plan that is substantially incomplete but it has no administrative function, so as pointed out in the “Wild Goose Chase” section of my earlier report [8], it should be removed from the General Plan.

 

p. 42.3 “The former Stegner property was developed in the late 1940s (before the incorporation of the Town) however, no documentation revealed that it was directly associated to the early planning and/or development of the Town of Los Altos Hills.”

 

This overlooks the fact that Stegner was a principal instigator of the controversial incorporation of the Town of Los Altos Hills and set many of its anti-development goals enunciated in the primary document used to sell the proposed incorporation, namely the “Green Sheets” [9]. Wallace Stegner as a listed participant in that project and anyone familiar with his writings can see that the key arguments were written by him.

 

p. 46.3 “The Town of Los Altos Hills has not officially reviewed or adopted the property at 13456 South Fork Lane as a historic resource.”

 

As noted above for p. 36.3, the Town has not adopted any property as a historic resource. However on May 17, 2011, which was before the Town’s History Committee had figured out that the List of Historic Sites and Structures in the General Plan actually has no function, they voted unanimously to place both the Stegner residence and the one that formerly belonged to Hewlett-Packard founders and philanthropists David and Lucile Packard on that list. As usual, the Town Council ignored those recommendations without explanation.

 

Note that Footnote 34 claims that “Some member of the Los Altos Hills History Committee did meet in May 2011 to discuss the possibility of adding the Stegner property to the Town’s Inventory of Historic Sites, however no official action was taken at that time.” That is a blatant lie inasmuch as the resolution cited just above was adopted unanimously by the History Committee and was reported in the official minutes of their May 17, 2011 meeting. I would be interested to know who provided this misinformation to the author, Sheila McElroy.

 

p. 46.4 “Individually, the only structure that meets the NR [National Register] criteria would be Stegner’s writing studio [i.e. his study].”

 

Happily this means that, despite a bit of confusion about the history, the right conclusion has been reached about the historical significance of the study.

 

p. 55.5 “Under this CRHR [California Register of Historical Resources] Special Consideration a historical resource must retain its historic features and compatibility in orientation, setting and general environment. Under the proposed project, these Special Conditions are met, as the project will preserve the character-defining features of the building and the general rural residential location and setting that is associated with Wallace Stegner’s use of the building.”

 

That argument looks bogus to me. How does dropping the study into the middle of a dark forest “preserve the character-defining features of the building”?

 

p. 57.2 “Furthermore, there is no indication that any of Stegner’s original belonging [sic] that were in the writing studio are extant at the property and the Assessment states that interior wood paneling and shelves have been removed.”

 

There would not be much point in placing Stegner’s furnishings in that building if it is being converted into a cottage, where the primary furnishings would be beds and dressers. However if we are able to preserve it as a study it will be our plan to restore its interior as much as possible. In response to an earlier inquiry from me, Lynn Stegner (Wallace’s daughter-in-law) wrote:

“yes, we did preserve the artifacts, typewriters, desk, books (of course) shelves, etc.  Some are at the University of Utah, but the desk is in Santa Fe and the rest Page and I have.”

With the Stegners’ cooperation we would hope to get some of those furnishings for the museum and to match the rest as closely as possible.

 

p. 57.3 “it appears that the writing studio could be moved to the new onsite location without causing damage to or destruction of the building.”

 

Note that this doesn’t say how the move might be done. Moving a building into the middle of a forest without damaging it and without cutting down a lot of trees is a nontrivial task.

 

p. 58.1 “The proposed project would not cause a substantial adverse change to the writing studio, however, as it will be preserved such that it will still be able to convey significance under CRHR.”

 

But how does converting the study into another cottage convey this significance? If it is supposed to serve some other function in its new location, what is it?

 

Conclusions

 

In summary, the report [1] appears to be a bogus attempt to circumvent existing regulations on historical preservation. If you have the time, I invite you to look it over and identify additional holes in their logic, document them according to [2] and, if possible, show up at the public hearings specified in [2] and at the beginning of this note.

 

 

References

 

[1] Town of Los Altos Hills, Planning Department, “Initial Study Checklist & References; New Residence, Basement, Swimming Pool, and Relocation of a Detached Accessory Building; 13456 South Fork Lane,” April 11, 2012. See www.stanford.edu/~learnest/stegner/study.1204.pdf.

 

[2] Town of Los Altos Hills, Planning Department, “Notice of Intent to Adopt a Mitigated Negative Declaration,” April 10, 2012. See www.stanford.edu/~learnest/stegner/intent.pdf.

 

[3] Florence Fava, Los Altos Hills, the colorful story, Gilbert Richards Publications, Woodside, CA, 1976.

 

[4] Les Earnest, “Recommend removal of erroneous historical monuments,” Memo to Los Altos Hills Council, May 10, 2010. See www.stanford.edu/~learnest/lah/monuments.pdf.

 

[5] Town of Los Altos Hills, Municipal Code. See http://qcode.us/codes/losaltoshills/.

 

[6] “General Plan -- Conservation,” Town of Los Altos Hills, See www.losaltoshills.ca.gov/docs/browse/cat_view/61-general-plan

 

[7] “Inventory of Historical Sites and Structures,” Town of Los Altos Hills, See Appendix 4a at www.losaltoshills.ca.gov/docs/browse/cat_view/61-general-plan.

 

[8] Les Earnest, “Myths about Wallace Stegner’s Study,” report to Los Altos Hills History Committee, February 2012. See http://www.stanford.edu/~learnest/stegner/myths.pdf

 

[9] Wallace Stegner, et al, “Green Sheets”, a proposal to incorporate a “Foothill

Community” that became Los Altos Hills, 1956. See www.losaltoshills.ca.gov/documents/departments/planning/lah_green_sheets.pdf.