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