Jackling COWntroversy

June 26, 2009

At its’ meeting on Tuesday June 23rd, the Town COWncil once again formally approved the demolition of the Jackling House. The final 5-2 vote came with some caveats and an implicit bureaucratic gun pointed at preservationists.

You are probably more than familiar with Steve Job’s efforts to demolish the Jackling house. If not, you can read our prior reports here with the background on the dispute here and here.

The discussion kicked off with a side issue, Town Manager Susan George addressed the suggestion that the Town’s outside land-use attorneys had a conflict of interest. Apparently a reporter had suggested that that since they had done some work for Pixar (a company founded by Steve Jobs) that they had a conflict of interest. Ms. George claimed that they had only been brought in for CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) concerns, had done previous work for the Town, had performed only in an advisory role with no advocating for or against the demolition permit, and had consulted an ethicist who had proclaimed that they didn’t have a conflict of interest concern. Ms. George said that she just wanted that noted “for the record.”

Next, the discussion centered on the proposed agreement with Gordon Smythe, of Palo Alto, who wants to find a location in the Bay Area for the House. COWncil member Hodges asked just what would be saved in any deal with Smythe. Steve’s attorney replied that an architectural historian consultant, who would have to be approved by the Town, would decide what elements are “historic elements” and need to be preserved. A contractor familiar with this sort of historic demolition would take apart the house carefully in order to substantially rebuild it on another site. According to the agreement, Mr. Jobs would pay for the demolition (to the tune of $604,000!) and Gordon Smythe would pay to store the materials and make a good faith effort to find a site and rebuild the House. If, after 5 years, the House could not be rebuilt, the ‘historic elements” would be split up and donated to various preservation and historical groups, including the Town of Woodside. The kicker is that the agreement with Gordon has a clause that allows him to back out of the deal if it gets tied up in court again, since it took more than two years last time to wind through the legal system.

Gordan Smythe acknowledged the difficulty of finding an “appropriate” piece of land for the House to rest on, which he believes needs to be at least ten acres or more. When he had previously looked for a site, the search took him as far as Southern California. He wants to reconstruct the 10,000 square foot main house as a private residence for his family, causing COWncilmember Hodges to say, “I’ll be damned,” and “Good luck!”

A member of the public raised concerns over the possible demolition of another house on the property, accusing the Town (and Susan George directly!) of requiring a “good faith effort” to knock that house down during the merging of two lots, causing Susan to proclaim that was “not a suggestion of ours” and flatly, “No.” The COWncil seemed EXTREMELY reluctant to get into the issue of yet another house, and didn’t pursue the matter.

That was the MEAT of the matter, though there was some squabbling between COWncil members Ron Romines and Dave Burow over Romines’ wish for the resolution to require that the agreement between the Town, Steve Jobs, and Gordon Smythe be signed before any demolition permit was issued. COWncil member Romines said that the Town was at the “99th mile” and he just wanted to be sure that after all this work, the deal didn’t fall apart and the Town be left with no recourse. He got a surprising amount of pushback from the feisty Dave Burows, who said that the COWncil had already spent an “inordinate amount” of Town time on the matter, and that there were other important issues that they could have been addressing such as fire safety or Sudden Oak Death, and that he didn’t want the issue to come back to the COWncil.

Ron Romines reiterated several times his COWncerns, and said that if somehow the deal fell through (claiming he wasn’t knocking Steve Jobs or Gordon Smythe) without being signed, that the COWncil would look back at their own actions and say they’d been a bit sloppy.

After some quibbles over language with the Town’s attorney, the COWncil passed a resolution to “adopt an addendum” to the Environmental Impact Report by six votes to one, with Mayor Mason voting no. The COWncil then approved the actual demolition permit with Ron Romines’ caveat about requiring the signing of the preservation agreement, 5-2, with Mason and Burow voting no (Burow later said he voted no due to Romines’ amendment).

The only remaining question is possible threat of more litigation to stop the demolition. After the last COWcil discussion, the matter was back in Court. If we understand all the legalese, the Court still has jurisdiction. This action by our COWncil seems to have pointed a metaphorical gun at preservationist interests, though. Since Gordon Smythe is able to walk away from any deal to preserve the historical elements of the House if there is litigation, will the preservationists wager that they can get the Judge to agree to force Steve Jobs to preserve the house where it stands or move it in its entirety, versus the very real danger that the House will just be left to rot or eventually torn down with no plan to rebuild any part of it in the future? A court hearing is scheduled for the 10th of July, when we should know if the preservationists accept this contract with Gordon Smythe as “the only viable way” to preserve the House. No one from the UOH or other preservationist groups showed up to this COWncil meeting which is a big change from the last meeting where the two camps seemed roughly equal in numbers.

This saga has been playing out since 2004. We agree with Council member Burows, it is time to MOOve on.

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