Saturday, March 26, 2016

Neighbors Working Together Can Make a Difference

A vintage postcard of Santa Clara Valley's orchards, from my book California Apricots: the Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley, published by the History Press.

I was very discouraged when I wrote the post in February, about the lastest proposal to redevelop the property where my small town has preserved a small Heritage Apricot Orchard for more than half a century.

When I stopped being discouraged, I joined forces with a number of my neighbors and got back to the work of saving it. 

This was the fifth proposal since the year 2000 to redevelop the beautiful property that includes our Civic Center, Heritage Orchard, police station, public library, Los Altos History Museum and the Smith House (a legacy building that is another history center), as well as our Hillview Community Center and its adjacent park.

The Los Altos Heritage Apricot Orchard does need maintenance, restoration and intrepretation so that visitors can better appreciate it. Still, even in its present state, it remains a unique asset for a small town to cherish in the increasingly dense Silicon Valley.

This time, a group of us who opposed the development, banded together to write letters to the school district, which hoped to build a school there, and to our city council, the members of which did not have good information on the ordinances passed over the years to protect and preserve the Heritage Orchard.

I knew the Orchard was a City Historical Landmark. I kept insisting that this gave the Orchard protection from development. As it turns out, I was correct in thinking that. 

I wrote this book, published by the History Press, hoping to inform newcomers to Silicon Valley about our rich history. The creative work, in turn, enriched my own knowledge of the region, its wonderful people, and the Heritage Orchard that stands at my own City Hall.

At the Los Altos History Museum, I stumbled across a file that listed all the ordinances and resolutions, approved since 1954, that protect the orchard as a City Historical Landmark. Also in the file were copies of some of the ordinances, which showed how complex it would be for anyone in our local government to change the Orchard's size, shape, or status. 

Here is an article from our local paper on what that means:

School districts all over the country are very powerful, and it is true here as well. Local citizens here approved a bond last year for $150M dollars for the district to build a new school--with no strings attached. So the district went into the fight with a lot of money: and, it believed lots of support.

The neighbors who opposed this plan did so for a variety of reasons. Saving the orchard was my goal and some made that a priority. Others opposed the new school for reasons of traffic, thrift, hope for a better Civic Center in the future, desire for more park land, hope for a better community center, or because they believe the entire property needs a plan before it is sliced up like a loaf of bread. The idea that one agency of government might bully another over something as scarce as land in this valley was yet another reason for citizens' opposition. We coordinated our speakers so we didn't repeat messages or step on each other and doing so enhanced our message. 

 We all appeared at the City Council meeting prepared to make our presentations brief and as powerful as possible. Of the fifteen neighbor who spoke, only one disagreed with us and she did so very mildly. So we really did carry the day.

And, in the end, our voices were heard. What a relief it has been to discover, again, that in a democracy, voters pulling together really can still make a difference.  Here's the next story from our local paper about how it all came out:

Of course the story does not end there. This piece of property in the heart of our town is slightly more than eighteen acres and that makes it worth an awful lot of money. Builders, developers, realtors and their pals don't see this as a space that contains our local History Museum, City Hall, Youth Center, Police Station, Community Center and several large playing fields, encompassed by our Heritage Apricot Orchard a City of Los Altos Historical Landmark.  They see it as an opportunity. With five proposals, just since the year 2000, to redevelop it, we can almost count on more in the months and years ahead. 

This billboard is evidence of a 2008-2011 attempt to redevelop our Heritage Orchard. That billboard especially got my goat since billboards are against our zoning ordinances in Los Altos.

But going forward into the future, neighbors are armed with the knowledge of the ordinances the city itself has approved over the years to preserve this beautiful, historic green space. A group of us now plan to work to enlist local leaders to revitalize, restore and renew this unique asset so that it may continue to be enjoyed in the years ahead.

Not everybody understands what this orchard is doing surrounding out local City Hall. 
But better care and signage will help our citizens better appreciate this village green at our city's heart.

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