About the October 2004 "Newsletter" from the Civic Association

In the run-up to the 2004 election for Los altos Hills Town Council, a scurrilous mailer was sent to town residents that attacked the town's Open Space Committee. It implicitly or directly accused them with a "spin" clearly designed to upset and divide the residents about what was (allegedly) going on.

These accusations were so "off the wall" that they should probably not even be diginified with a response. However, in the interests of openness and providing the residents with factual information, the following clarifications are offered:

Claim "...The main charter of this Committee is to significantly increase conservation easements on private property to restrict development..."

No. The committee’s charter is to assist the Town in addressing any issues that affect the Open Space values of the town, by advising the town on any scenic, wildlife, ecological, or erosive impacts of land use. It was created following the overwhelming mandate of the Open Space Initiative where citizens declared it important to maintain the Town’s open space characteristics.
Claim "...if this ordinance were passed, it would make many of our lots non-conforming..."
No. The not-yet-even-proposed ordinance under discussion in the committee would have no effect on the conformance of a lot. It does not affect the MFA/MDA calculations in any way (though we should add that easements for open space conservation can actually increase your MFA/MDA.). (MFA and MDA refer to Maximum Floor Area and Maximum Development Area respectively)
Claim "...A 30% slope occurs on land with only 13.5 degrees of inclination..."
No. As any high school student in a trigonometry class can tell you, a 30% slope is actually 16.7 degrees (atan(.30)=16.7; the newsletter is off by 23%). Also, as a more intuitive measure, you should know that the steepest cable car route in San Francisco has 22 % slope.
Claim "...This committee is in the process of inventorying and recording all conservation easements on private property..."
No. There is no sinister project to create ("record") easements going on behind people's back. What this "accusation" is probably referring to is simply the inventory requirement in the Town's own General Plan, section 310: "It is imperative, therefore, that the Town inventory and analyze especially intermediate and micro scale open spaces within the Town and add recommendations to this plan to ensure all land significant to maintenance of community character will be preserved." Such an inventory is part of the same data collection process that will go into the efforts to modernize Los Altos Hills' planning department with a computerized Geographic Information System ("GIS") that will provide instant, interactive mapping, viewing, and analysis of land data for the benefit of planners and residents alike.

The fact is that since the Town's inception, record keeping on things like pathways and easements and other agreements with owners has been spotty at best. Going through the paper archives to research these agreements is tedious, and in some cases documents have been lost or never formally recorded after the agreement was made.

The committee has not had the time nor the manpower to embark on this endeavour, although one or two volunteers have made a start - partly as a learning exercise to find out how even to go about it.

Claim "...The Town’s requirements of conservation easements on private property in recent years has been questionable at best..."
No. The authority for the town to require “Open Space Easements” (not “conservation easements”) comes straight from the California State Code, Section 51075, which authorizes towns to do so, and which declares these easements to be in the public interest.

These easements are used to protect areas of creeks, significant horticulture (e.g. oak trees), wildlife corridors, and steep slopes from disturbance.

The Town's General Plan supports both easements for preservation at the micro level (Sec 306.10) as well as open space conservation areas for larger areas (Sec 310.2). Nothing in recent years has altered the Town's land use planning process.

Claim "...Our General Plan calls for the dedication of conservation easements on private property where slopes are in excess of 50%..."
  1. No. Our General Plan states “all slopes, canyons, and ravines, generally in excess of 30% slope should be kept free of structures and left in a natural condition with respect to terrain and vegetation. These areas are classified as ‘open space conservation areas.’” (Section 106 of the Land Use Element).

    (side note: The primary reason the Open Space Committee has been discussing an ordinance at all is to give more direction to the town planners in conforming to this requirement of our General Plan. Ordinances are the correct tool for turning General Plan requirements into objective rules for administration.)

  2. No. The “50% slope” that this newsletter quotes is actually from the General Plan’s guideline for subdivision policies, where it says that new lots should not be created by subdivision where the average slope is 50% or greater.
Claim "...There are many homes currently built on 30% slopes and a significant amount of private land in Los Altos Hills has 30% slope..."
This is deceptive, if not inaccurate: to be clear, there are many homes built on properties with average slope of 30%, but there are very few homes that actually sit on a 30% grade. Our grading policies already limit the local slope of a building site.

It may be interesting to know the results of an independent report done in 2002 by the U.S. Geological Survey, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior (Report 02-35, available on the internet) specifically about land-use planning in Los Altos Hills:

"... Almost 1/2 of the community has slopes from 10% to 30%, a slope category usually targeted for residential development but with progressively increasing concerns and regulatory restrictions toward the upper limit. In the 1/5 of the Town with slopes greater than 30%, residential development without significant modification of the surroundings becomes increasingly difficult..."

Claim "...Was it the intent of those who signed the Open Space Initiative... to donate this much private property to the town?..."
The intent of the Open Space Initiative was to protect Town-owned lands from being sold off without a vote of the residents.

The use of the word “donate” is false and deceptive. There is absolutely no issue of "donating" property with respect to open space easements. There is no effect on ownership: land that is covered by an open space easement still remains the sole property of the landowner who continues to own, enjoy, and sell it just as before. Also, note that an open space easement does not convey rights of access or entry to the general public; the land is not for anyone else to use.

Claim "...So does the town of Los Altos Hills have ‘nexus’ to require ... conservation easements ... Can the case be made that ... a conservation easement must be required over a substantial portion of a property owners land?
This question is based on a false premise. There is no issue of “violating constitutional rights.” Open space easements were authorized by the state of California by the Open Space Easement Act of 1974 (California State Code, Sections 51070-51097), specifically for retaining land in its natural, unimproved state for preserving the rural character of the area.

For a visual perspective on slope
percentages, click here.
Contributed by Roger Spreen
Chair, Los Altos Hills Open Space Committee *
(* Affiliation for identification purposes only)