Lester D. Earnest

12769 Dianne Drive; Los Altos Hills, CA 94022

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

 

June 20, 2012

 

Los Altos Hills Council

26379 Fremont Road

Los Altos Hills, CA 94022

 

Subject: Historical inconsistencies persist in the Town of Los Altos Hills

 

Beginning at 7:00 PM on Thursday, June 21, 2012 the Town Council of Los Altos Hills is slated to review and vote on an environmental study and redevelopment plan for the former residence of world famous author Wallace Stegner [1, 2]. The Council is expected to approve that plan, which calls for Stegner’s former residence to be demolished and for the hilltop Study where he wrote his most famous books to be “preserved” by dismantling it and putting it down-slope in a dark forest where it will be invisible and inaccessible. That plan is clearly inconsistent with the Town’s longstanding official commitment to preservation of historical landmarks as shown in the Town’s General Plan [3] and its Municipal Code [4]. Note that Policy 10.1 in the Conservation Element of the Town's General Plan says: “Preserve, protect and enhance the historic resources of the planning area because they are unique and valuable assets for the community and region.”  However the new plan is unfortunately consistent with the Town’s past actions in which the only serious historical preservation efforts supported by the town so far can best be described as creating fake history.

 

Nonfunctioning Government

Given that Title 11 of the Municipal Code [4] includes elaborate procedures for proposing, reviewing and designating historical Landmarks, one might wonder how many such places have been recognized over the years? The answer is none.

 

Could it be that no such sites have been nominated? On the contrary, on May 17, 2011, the Town’s History Committee unanimously adopted the resolutions nominating two sites under Municipal Code 11-1.01, as follows.


Wallace Stegner Residence
, 13440 South Fork Lane.
This will recognize of Stegner's substantial work on the committee that initiated the founding of the Town and his contributions as an internationally acclaimed author.

Packard Residence, 26580 Taaffe Road.
This will recognize David Packard's co-founding of Hewlett Packard Corporation,

 

However the Mayor never scheduled any public hearings on either of these proposals and neither she nor any other Council member offered the History Committee an explanation for why their requests were being ignored. It should be acknowledged, however, that this was the way that nearly all recommendations by the History Committee have been treated by the Council. Thus there has been no consideration given to Landmark status even in the current important case.

 

On May 3, 2012 the Town’s Planning Commission unanimously approved the proposals [3, 4] to authorize demolition of the former Wallace Stegner residence, which was where the original plan to incorporate the Town of Los Altos Hills was written by Stegner, namely the Green Sheets [5], and to “preserve” the small Study where the world famous author wrote many of his best books, including the Pulitzer Prize winning “Angle of Repose,” by moving it from its hilltop location downhill into a dark forest where it will be both inaccessible and invisible.

 

In doing this the Commission ignored major defects in the environmental study, including numerous historical errors that had been called to their attention [6]. Many of those errors were evidently the result of the Town’s failure to repair inaccuracies in the Town History web page [7], even though they had been repeatedly called to the attention of the Town Staff by members of the History Committee, but are still there today. Most of those errors did not have a big impact on the study results except for one major blunder. In the Circa historical study included in [1] in the section on “Criterion A” it says

“Historical research did not reveal that the property at 13456 South Fork Lane is notably associated with an important event or pattern of events related to national, state or local history.”

The author was apparently jumped to that conclusion because she was unaware of Wallace Stegner’s role in initiating the incorporation of the Town. She makes that clear by making no mention of his authorship of the Green Sheets [5]. I assume this was the result of inadequate research rather than suppression of an important historical fact.

 

Under Criterion A, Stegner’s residence was clearly associated with an important event in local history, namely the incorporation of the Town, which was started there. That incorporation proposal, aimed at preserving a low density rural environment was just barely adopted by popular vote in 1956. Had Stegner and his colleagues not succeeded, the lands now included in the Town would almost certainly have been incrementally annexed into the growing nearby cities of Los Altos and Palo Alto and, under their zoning laws, would now be much more densely populated and include commercial buildings. This fact was called to the attention of the Planning Commission in [6] but, as with other things they didn’t want to know about, it was ignored in their findings.

 

The Planning Commission also ignored the longstanding request by the Los Altos Hills Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit corporation, to allow Stegner’s former Study to be moved to one of two sites on Town Lands and turned into a mini-museum, all at the expense of the Society. That request had been made on August 22, 2011 and, as with other requests made to the Council, it was ignored by the Mayor and other Council members, who declined to give a plausible reason for not considering this request, even when asked.

 

The Planning Commission also ignored a later resolution by the Town’s History Committee, who on March 20, 2012 adopted a resolution recommending that the Study be moved to a site near Town Hall by adopting the following resolution:

“The History Committee recommends that if and when a demolition permit is granted for the Lands of Yong on South Fork Lane and if the owners agree, the Los Altos Hills Historical Society will be permitted to move the former Study of Wallace Stegner, at their own expense, to a site in the apricot orchard next to the Town’s Heritage House, with the exact location to be determined by Town officials and, on arrival this structure will become Town property. The small bathroom that had been added to this structure at one end and the book storage area on one side are to be abandoned at the original site and this building is to be reconstructed at the destination at the expense of the Historical Society so as to allow it to be used as a museum. We recommend that the Town not charge for any town permits needed to carry out this work.

 

Why was this request ignored? Evidently the Planning Commission, like the Council, was intent on not making any real Landmarks publicly accessible.

 

The Council now gets to confirm this. While none of the Council Members have publicly stated their positions on this matter yet, two of them tipped their hands long ago by fabricating false claims about Stegner and his Study in press interviews, as discussed in my “Myths” article [9]. It will take only three Council Members to approve the proposed double historical atrocity.

 

How the Town honors history

It should be mentioned that the Town has not completely ignored historical matters. In fact they have invested thousands of dollars in fake history. A series of volunteer “Town Historians” were appointed by the Council over the years and one named Florence Fava took over in the 1970s. She had joined an anthropology class at Foothill College that excavated former Indian village sites along Adobe Creek on both sides of O’Keefe Lane, where they dug up and preserved a number of artifacts. However she then continued digging on her own and swiped the things she found for her own collection.

 

Fava concurrently started writing a book on the history of Los Altos Hills and enrolled in a Foothill College class on writing, where the instructor observed that she was not very good at it and put her in touch with a more able classmate. That person, acting as editor, soon figured out that much of Fava’s writings were plagiarized (taken from the writings of others without attribution) while much of the rest was fiction. She tried to get Fava to deal with these matters honestly but was forced to give up. That book somehow later got published under the title “Los Altos Hills, the colorful story” [10] and is the only history book devoted to Los Altos Hills. Unfortunately it is full of misinformation. The editor who gave up on that project was my first wife, Joan, who later passed away.

 

One of Fava’s fabrications was her claim that the Anza Expedition traveled through Los Altos Hills in 1776 along what is now Fremont Road. She apparently made up that story so as to justify participating in the Bicentennial Celebrations that were held across the country that year. She also talked the Council into funding two large stone monuments with bronze plaques that were placed along Fremont Road. However instead of correctly calling it the “Anza Expedition” she said “De Anza,” an error that was shared with other Gringos including those who set up a local college. The Council also funded a “reenactment” of this alleged event using costumed horsemen and hikers, which was duly reported by local media who hadn’t done their homework.

 

Another expensive “history” project was the 1984 moving of a small former farmhouse from Los Altos that had no special historical significance to a site next to Town Hall at considerable expense, to become a “Heritage House” for displaying historical artifacts. However the Town staff then turned one of its four rooms into an office for the Deputy Sheriff serving the town, then made two more rooms into staff offices. A small corner room in back was designated as a storage place for Town historical artifacts but it was almost never open to the public.

 

The Council later turned most of the space over to the town’s Emergency Communications Committee to house their radio equipment and the historical artifacts were put in boxes and moved into the Council’s closet, where they now get rearranged on a weekly basis so that it is virtually impossible to figure out where a given artifact is located even if you know it is somewhere in the collection. Thus this expensive Heritage House historical preservation project led to no exhibit space at all. Since the town’s History Committee was formed in 2008 it has repeatedly adopted resolutions asking the Council to make space available to display historical artifacts but, like nearly all of their other requests, these have been consistently ignored.

 

Having noted that many street names in Los Altos Hills are misspelled versions of Spanish words and given that in 1961 I had invented the first computer spelling checker, it occurred to me that those names should be corrected, so in July 2008, shortly after joining the newly formed History Committee, I got them to endorse that proposal and took it to the Council, where I encountered hostility. One of the public remarks was “Why should we spell things the way that Mexicans do?” Thus that proposal went down the drain.

 

While bicycling to Town Hall one day I paused to read one of the historical monuments on Fremont Road and it occurred to me that it would have made no sense for the Anza Expedition to go that way, so I started doing some historical research. After reading the diaries of both Juan Bautista de Anza and his accompanying priest, Pedro Font, it became clear that their actual route through this area was roughly where El Camino Real goes today, so I got the History Committee to endorse the recognition of that fact and requested that the Council arrange for the removal of the phony historical monuments [11]. When I got to the Council it became clear that they wanted to ignore this historical blunder but just in time a letter appeared from a representative of the National Parks Service endorsing our claim, so the Council reluctantly agreed to having the monuments removed. Nevertheless, the erroneous claim that the Anza Expedition came through Los Altos Hills in 1776 is still included in the Town History web page today [7].

 

Overall, then, in spite of the Town’s disinterest in real historical preservation they have spent quite a lot on fake history.

 

The changing character of Los Altos Hills

Our Town is now very different from when I came here in 1965 to help set up a computer research lab at Stanford. I was attracted to the low density housing with one-acre minimums and enjoyed the apricot orchard on my land that was still bearing lots of fruit. I had heard that all commercial operations in town were being phased out, including the large quarry that was producing decomposed granite for use on roadside paths in our town and other places around the Bay as well as the Pink Horse Ranch and Adobe Creek Lodge commercial recreational facilities that were to be shut down. However I was not aware that this anti-commercial transformation had been initiated by Wallace Stegner, who also co-founded a number of other compatible organizations including the Committee for Green Foothills and the Trust for Public Land.

 

When I got here this place was called “The Valley of Hearts Delight” and there were still orchards along parts of El Camino Real and a large horse pasture on the corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road, which is now occupied by a financial center and a movie theater. Many people in town had horses and even more boarded horses in commercial stables here, two of which were in my neighborhood. There were few fences anywhere, so equestrians could ride cross-country in most directions to wherever they wanted to go. The village of Los Altos accommodated horsemen by providing posts for tying up horses along Main Street.

 

However things changed as the computer and electronics industries began to grow nearby and the name of this area changed to Silicon Valley. With increasing numbers of people looking for a place to build a mansion, Los Altos Hills naturally became their destination and land prices shot up. Happily my house is now worth about 50 times what I paid for it, though that will mostly benefit my heirs.

 

Along with the gentrification of the Hills came other attitudes that I call “snootification.” Whereas nearly everyone here originally liked the off-road paths that provided short walking or riding routes between cul-de-sacs that were far apart by road, there was growing NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition. For about two decades now the National Park Service has been trying to set up a so-called Anza Trail the from the Arizona-Sonora border area over toward the West Coast and up to San Francisco, including a segment through Los Altos Hills (even though the actual expedition didn’t go that way) but the Town of Los Altos Hills has so far refused to cooperate even though suitable trail routes through the town already exist. The problem is that when hearings are held about this idea, snooty residents show up saying things like “Why should we set up a route that might encourage lower class people to walk through our beautiful town?”

 

Pathway opposition reached a peak around the turn of the century when an “owners’ rights” group got control of the Council, removed all people from the Pathways Committee who strongly favored paths (such as me) and then staged a coup in which the officers of that committee were overthrown. The Committee then put together a plan to dismantle much of the pathway system, which was approved by the Council. However by that time the opposition had gotten organized, used an expensive referendum to block the pathway dismantling and booted the bad guys off the Council. Things have run much more smoothly in the Hills ever since, though there continues to be a major discrepancy between the town’s alleged historical preservation goals as specified in its General Plan and what is actually happening on a case-by-case basis.

 

Other evidence of local snootification is that some people here were proud to learn recently that a national record for the sale price of a single family home was recently set here at $100 million. Such attitudes also clearly have helped generate opposition to the preservation of Wallace Stegner’s Study as a museum, as some people have been heard to say, “Why should we set up an exhibit here that might attract outsiders to our town?”

 

Conclusions

I hope that the Council will overlook the erroneous action of the Planning Commission, which was both inconsistent with the Town’s General Plan and with State Law regarding preservation of preservation of a site that played a significant role in the Town’s creation, namely Stegner’s residence, and will vote in accordance with that law. Failing that, the Town will apparently be setting itself up for a valid legal action against its decision.

 

If the Council does decide to again ignore its General Plan then I hope that steps will be taken to modify that plan by removing the alleged goals of historical preservation so as to lower the degree of hypocrisy in future Council actions.

 

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] Town of Los Altos Hills, “General Plan – 4 Conservation,”.

See www.losaltoshills.ca.gov/docs/browse/cat_view/61-general-plan

 

[4] Town of Los Altos Hills, Municipal Code Title 11. See http://qcode.us/codes/losaltoshills/.

 

[5] Wallace Stegner, et al, “Green Sheets”, a proposal to incorporate the “Foothill Community” that became Los Altos Hills, 1956. See www.losaltoshills.ca.gov/documents/departments/planning/lah_green_sheets.pdf.

 

[6] L.D. Earnest, Mitigated Negative Declaration for the property at 13456 South Fork Lane,” letter to the Los Altos Hills Planning Department, April 13, 2012. See www.stanford.edu/~learnest/stegner/cequa.htm.

 

[7] Town of Los Altos Hills, “Town History” see www.losaltoshills.ca.gov/about-lah/town-history.

 

[8] Los Altos Hills Historical Society, “Preserving Wallace Stegner’s former Study,” letter to City Council, Aug. 22, 2011. See http://www.stanford.edu/~learnest/stegner/council.1108.pdf

 

[9] L. Earnest, “Myths about Wallace Stegner’s Study,” Feb. 2012. See www.stanford.edu/~learnest/stegner/myths.pdf.

 

[10] Florence FavaLos Altos Hills, the colorful story, Gilbert Richards Publications, Woodside, CA, 1976.

 

[11] Los Altos Hills History Committee, “Recommend removal of erroneous historical monuments,” May 3, 2010.

See http://www.stanford.edu/~learnest/lah/monuments.pdf