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[whitespace] Monte Sereno residents just say no to open-space notion

Monte Sereno--The ordinance that would have established a permanent open-space commission in Monte Sereno went down in flames Jan. 4, when residents with property adjoining possible open-space or trail areas emphatically told the council, "Not in my back yard."

Monte Sereno City Council Chambers were uncharacteristically packed with local residents, who, one after another, spoke out against the proposed commission. Property owners cited privacy, safety, trash, liability issues and declining property values as reasons for opposing the ordinance.

Arguments raged over just how much power the commission would actually have, but in the face of overwhelming neighborhood opposition, the council voted 4-1 to abandon the ordinance. Councilwoman Barbara Nesbet, who wrote the ordinance, cast the dissenting vote.

The ordinance was based on the recommendations of a temporary open-space committee created more than a year ago to identify possible sites for dedicated trails or open space and to determine whether a permanent commission should be established. The committee's results included a list of sites--almost all of which were on private property--that could be turned into open space or public trails.

It also recommended the establishment of a permanent commission, which could periodically review open-space possibilities, provide frameworks for property owners to donate or the city to purchase open space, and coordinate the management of any new public trails or spaces.

However, what committee members and several council members saw as a way to protect the few remaining open areas in Monte Sereno, property owners viewed as a violation of their rights.

Even the creation of a preliminary list of open-space possibilities was viewed by some at the meeting as a threat to the community's admittedly high property values. "For the council to simply designate areas as open space leads the public to believe they have access to them," said Jim Ruffo, a Monte Sereno resident. "There's a lot of elements present [in the ordinance] that go against our rights as private property owners."

Ruffo was far from alone in his opinion. In a meeting characterized by periodic bursts of applause, snickering and statements directed at individual council members, the ordinance's few supporters were overwhelmed by the opposition.

Mary Riley of Monte Sereno described the ordinance as "a thinly disguised attempt at eminent domain." Fellow property owner Marshall Amstandig said the ordinance, "as it is proposed, constitutes a taking."

Speakers continually referred to "the list," the properties named by the temporary committee as possible trail or open-space sites, repeatedly demanding that their names and properties be deleted from it.

Councilman Joel Gambord echoed the audience's sentiments, arguing that the list, by its very existence, was an "insidious" part of an unnecessary ordinance. "Even if homeowners object to their property being included, the properties go on a list," Gambord said. "That property will lose value just being on that list."

Supporters of the measure, including the temporary committee's creator, Mayor Suzanne Jackson, repeatedly turned to town staff to clarify for residents the real purpose and powers of the committee.

City Attorney Bob Logan and City Manager Brian Loventhall tried to walk the tightrope of neutrality. Logan reassured residents that nothing in the ordinance "comes close to a taking," while Loventhal attempted to explain that the council was not voting on any specific trails or open spaces, only on whether to create a commission to consider these areas.

But while disagreements over the details of the ordinance remained unresolved, council members spent little time debating the matter before voting to drop the idea.

Gambord later said he was pleased at the standing-room-only crowd, whose comments reflected how wrong the ordinance was for a city like Monte Sereno. "The only people in favor of it were those who would not be affected, and want to be able to walk through other people's private property," Gambord said.

Jackson said she believes Monte Sereno needs an open-space commission and vowed to keep the issue alive.

Temporary committee member John Cummins said he was disappointed that the meeting discussion focused on only one of the committee's recommendations. "I believe it's important in the weeks ahead that there is some debate over the other recommendations," Cummins later said. Working with Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, applying for state open-space grants and establishing trails on public lands like Highway 9 are issues Cummins said can't be addressed without a permanent commission.

"I would hate to see the other potential advantages to the city washed away," Cummins said.
Nathan R. Huff

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