How Donald Eldridge Saved The Land

by Mark Schneider

I heard some of this story from Don Eldridge's daughter, and have
pieced it together with the stories of others and some memories of my
own. I'd love to find out just how true it is.

Dr. Russell Lee, founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, sold Palo
Alto what became Foothills Park on condition it remain open space. It
was dedicated in 1965. Certain Palo Alto leaders and visionaries, the
wonderful Nonette Hanko among them, also wanted an Upper Foothills
Park and they would park on Page Mill Road and dream of such a thing while
looking down the beautiful Stevens Creek Canyon.

But they felt that the cost and management of this larger park
should be born by a larger group within the county. Plans began to be
made for such an organization. These plans were realized when Measure
R passed in 1972 creating what is today known as the Mipeninsula
Regional Open Space District. (By the way, the measure was much
supported by many Land folk and, does anyone remember that our local
polling place for that and many other elections was the Long Hall.)

In the meantime though, events were moving. Alyce Lee Burns and her
husband Emmett were in possession of the very property that inspired
dreams of this upper regional park. And they had plans. The land had
been annexed into the city in 1959. Former mayor of Palo Alto, Kirk
Comstock, told me that the Burns were instrumental in the annexation
and in getting the city to bring up water and sewage. They smelled
development and they even put in an application to erect a crematorium
there.

The visionaries in Palo Alto were afraid that Burns would succeed in
developing the very land that inspired them before they could get
enough politcal support for the creation of a county-wide district
which could buy the land.

Donald Eldridge, the liberal and well-known venture capitalist, was
approached by some of these visionaries. If only he would buy the
land from Burns and save it from development he would be rewarded when
this planned regional park district became a reality. At such time
they would buy it from him and he would make some money and be a
hero. Eldridge's daughter told me he was very sympathetic and so he
negotiated a purchase from Burns in 1968.

And things were changing. In 1969 Palo Alto commissioned the firm of
Livingston and Blayney to study development of the foothills. They
said, among other things, that, since business and industry paid
two-thirds of the property taxes, new housing in the foothills would
not produce enough in tax revenue to pay for the additional school
costs it would generate. As other taxpayers would have to make up the
difference, the study concluded that it would be cheaper for the city
to buy the land outright.

Astonishing, I think. But here was a confluence of interests: tax
advantages and open space. Not only was it visionary to want open
space, it was financially sound.

In November of 1970 the city held a public hearing on the proposal (no
one spoke in opposition) and voted to accept these
recommendations. They immediately began looking for ways of financing
the purchase of the foothills. It looked like Eldridge's gamble would
pay off.

But these lands were expensive, most being zoned for one house per
acre, and the search for money was not very successful. (They did,
however, put a moratorium on development while they looked.) Then
someone in the planning department got smart. Why should we have to
pay for one house per acre when it's going to be open space. Let's
just zone it open space and make the land subject to highly
restrictive regulations.

And that's just what they did in June of 1972; changed things to one
house per ten acres and subject to draconian regulations. All of a
sudden, Eldridge's investment in the land lost much of its value.

Needless to say, this rezoning brought a raft of lawsuits from the
affected property owners. Eventually the United States Supreme Court
decided that rezoning was not taking property without compensation.

In the meantime Eldridge and Burns got into a contract dispute which
affected us greatly, but you can read that story elsewhere on the
wiki.

And so it was that Donald Eldridge saved The Land from development but
lost money doing it. Or so I've heard the story.