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Historic barn's future worries Peninsula horse-lovers


San Jose Mercury News - Tue, Jun. 18, 2002
By Chuck Carroll

Los Altos Hills' move to inventory town-owned property has horse lovers and open-space advocates abuzz with speculation about the possible sale of the Westwind Community Barn site.

No formal deal to sell public land is in the works. But a small group of residents is gauging support for a ballot measure that would require voters to approve the sale of public lands like Westwind, an oft-cited symbol of this pricey enclave's rural-by-design flavor.

The Battle of Westwind, if it happens, would represent perhaps the most significant clash yet over the town's eroding preservationist tradition.

Ever since Mayor Toni Casey and other council members ordered an inventory of town-owned property and an assessment of how each of the 27 parcels might be put to best use, rumors have spread that a wealthy resident or outside developer has his eye on Westwind, the crown jewel in the city's collection of open spaces.

No sale could happen until a lease held by the non-profit Friends of Westwind runs out in 2004.

At stake: 15 acres of horse heaven -- rolling pastures; riding ring; a 17-stall, U-shaped stable; and all the brushing and pampering a horse could want. Located at the top of Altamont Road, the barn is home to several horse programs for teens, disabled children and others from around the Bay Area.

Dozens of volunteers keep the place going. The larger community gets to use it, too. Children can attend a popular summer day camp, and hikers can tread the trails that cross the richly varied landscape and connect to other open spaces.

The integrity of the adjacent 88-acre Byrne Preserve may also hang in the balance. City leaders have said they would consider selling the Westwind land only if the historic barn and its programs could be relocated to the nature preserve. But deed restrictions on the Byrne land make it questionable whether the equestrian center could be located there.

Together, the barn site and preserve make up most of the town-owned land designated or used for open space or recreation.

Some residents fear that not just Los Altos Hills, but the whole region would lose out if the barn site were sold.

So far, there has been no concrete proposal from the town council to sell the Westwind land and move the historic barn. Council members say it makes sense for the town to know the value of its land, and suggest people are getting excited prematurely. But Westwind advocates fear that if the land is sold, the barn will never be moved or replaced.

"Why does Toni want to sell it when we don't need the money? It makes you wonder who's going to benefit," said Sue Chou, whose home is across Altamont Road from the barn and preserve.

Move questioned

It also may be inappropriate to move a stable to the nature preserve, some said.

"It is a very special place," said Alison Collin, program director of the Westwind 4-H Riding for the Handicapped program, which has served an estimated 500 to 600 disabled youths since it began in 1978. "You can't plunk a barn and 50 horses over there and consider it a nature preserve."

Councilman Bob Fenwick has suggested the preserve might also have picnic tables and barbecue pits installed so more people will use it.

It's hard to say how much money 15 gorgeous, reasonably flat hilltop acres in Los Altos Hills might fetch in today's market. But it would be more than enough to conceal the town's utility wires underground or to build a new town hall -- two of the town council's identified goals.

"It's such an incredible piece," said Gary Campi, a real estate agent who lives in Los Altos Hills. "It's kind of name-your-price."

Campi's Web site lists an undeveloped 4.5-acre knoll elsewhere in town for $10.5 million.

Already stung by the town council's apparent intent to give up the city's claim to several miles of undeveloped off-road pathways through private property, the small group of barn lovers is preparing to fight the potential loss of Westwind and other open spaces.

They say the sale of these lands would be an insult to the memory of the people who donated it to the town in the first place.

The barn and the land around it were donated to the town without restriction in 1975 by a Hungarian countess, Margit Bessenyey.

They believe Bessenyey intended the land to remain as permanent open space, and that failure to include such a provision in the deed was an oversight.

Most of the neighboring Byrne Preserve was obtained through a 1968 donation from Albert M. Byrne to the Nature Conservancy, which in turn deeded the land to the town strictly for use as a nature preserve.

"When land's given to a community by someone who's dying, it would be appalling for a few people on the city council to turn around and sell it," said John Metcalfe, one of the organizers of the initiative drive.

Conditions for selling

Most council members have said they would consider selling the land, but only if the barn and its programs could be relocated on the adjacent Byrne Preserve.

Politics is the last thing on the mind of Colin Werner, one of about 14 disabled Bay Area children who ride ponies or horses Mondays and Thursdays at Westwind as part of the 4-H program.

Colin, 6, of San Jose, was born with a condition that left him with limited physical abilities and poor speech. But when he sits on his gentle 4-H pony, Mandy, you don't have to be his mother to read the joy on his face.

For most of the children, riding day is a highlight of the week.

Another 6-year-old, Anthony Salas of Mountain View, has been using the program for two years. Anthony has a condition that left both legs and one arm with almost no muscle. Nevertheless, he's generally a happy kid, said his dad, Kim Salas.

Anthony tends to be bashful and rather tentative, Salas said. But he opens up when he's riding Silver, a Shetland pony. "The benefit he obtains from the program is that it's a confidence-builder. He gets to socialize with other kids. He's learning to become assertive; he can command a horse now."

Nancy Couperus, a founder of Friends of Westwind Barn, noted that the loss of Westwind would be felt beyond the exclusively residential town of Los Altos Hills.

It would be a shame, she said, to see Westwind wind up in private hands when the town offers little to the rest of the area. Los Altos Hills children must travel to neighboring Palo Alto or Los Altos to participate in recreational programs and other youth activities.

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