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Group takes initiative to preserve open space


By Kellie Schmitt
Mercury News

Anne-Marie McReynolds - Mercury News

A member of the Pony Club at Westwind Barn prepares to begin her riding lesson. The barn is home to several horse programs for teens, disabled children and others from around the Bay Area. Some Los Altos Hills residents oppose sale of the property.

One person's effort to preserve open space is picking up steam in Los Altos Hills. Frustrated with moves by the city council, resident Nancy Couperus and her team of advocates have launched a ballot initiative drive to change the land use designation for a number of town properties, including Westwind Barn.

The initiative, which requires the signatures of about 850 registered Los Altos Hills voters, could put to a town vote a change in the designation of Westwind Barn -- a popular equestrian facility -- from private recreation to public recreation.

Couperus and the LAH Citizen's Initiative group have collected more than 600 signatures since they began their petition drive Oct. 31.

Altering the land designation would prohibit the city council from selling the land, an idea several council members brought up in the spring. Councilwoman Toni Casey suggested selling town land to fund recreational programs while Mayor Bob Fenwick mentioned moving the barn south onto Byrne Preserve in order to sell the Westwind land.

In October, during an update of the town's master plan, the council passed a resolution to keep the property designations as they are -- private recreation. Selling the land would require a vote by residents.

Fenwick said the residents' proposal is off the mark. ``Ironically, they call it open space, but they are not designating it as open space,'' he said in reference to their designation of ``public recreation'' space. The reference to selling the land, Fenwick said, was only in passing last spring, and he doubts any action will be taken to change Westwind's designation.

``I thought it was a relatively small part of property that was very valuable,'' Fenwick said, adding that funds could be used for underground utilities. ``It's not obvious anything's going to change.''

Spoken in passing or not, Couperus didn't want to leave it to chance when she heard the murmurs on the council last spring. She began digging into town records and noticed that eight properties have what she calls inaccurate titles. Her initiative proposes to change five of the eight land use designations.

Under the initiative, Juan Prado Mesa Preserve and Rhus Ridge Properties would be redesignated from residential to open space; Murietta Ridge will be changed from private recreation to open space; Edith Park will be redesignated from residential to public recreation; and Westwind Community Barn will be changed from private recreation to public recreation.

Initially, Couperus said, the town staff seemed cooperative in changing the designations, but their enthusiasm waned a few weeks before the group's final presentation to the town on Oct. 1.

``Suddenly there was a shift,'' she said. ``The whole atmosphere changed -- the planning staff stopped returning our calls from our attorney.''

The next meeting, the council proposed its initiative, keeping designations the same.

If Couperus gathers the required 850 signatures, the next stop will be to present the initiative to the council. If the council rejects the measure, it will be addressed in a special election -- which could cost the city up to $50,000.

When Couperus' group publicized its efforts in June, and the need to hire a lawyer, the checks poured in -- $25,000 worth. On Oct. 23 the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and the Committee for Green Foothills sent out a letter urging citizens to support the initiative.

The Audubon Society created a tax-deductible fund specifically for Los Altos Hills. ``We should not see towns selling open space to raise money for pet projects,'' said Craig Breon, executive director of the society.

Steve Finn, a councilman who is near the end of his term, suggested in a townwide mailing that changing the designation could lead to an increase in recreational uses on the property, including soccer fields. Rebecca Hickman, co-chair of the Los Altos Hills Parks and Recreation Committee, said there are no plans to build any sort of recreation facility on the Westwind property.

The recent elections of Dean Warshawsky and Breene Kerr are seen as a coup for the Open Space Initiative Group. Both new council members are supportive of preserving open space, which increases the possibility that the council could adopt the initiative, eliminating the need for a special election.

``The reason I got into this'' race, Warshawsky said, ``was because of open space.''


Contact Kellie Schmitt at kschmitt@sjmercury.com or (650) 688-7558

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