Gold In Them Thar Hills

When Bill and Betty Kerns decided to build the Big One, they came to Los Altos Hills, one of the hottest addresses in Silicon Valley. After carving out a small fortune in the high-tech world, the Kernses snapped up a 21-acre swath of land and hammered out plans to plunk a 7,000-square-foot, 1920s-style Spanish Colonial atop the ridgeline, where the views stretched from the San Francisco skyline down to San Jose in the south. The only hitch: almost as soon as they had drawn up the blueprints, the town's planning department bombarded the couple with red tape. It insisted the development--which backed up against a protected slice of the foothills--would be unsafe, not to mention an eyesore. It said the Kernses' driveway was too steep, and complained their retaining walls were too high. The Kernses say the bureaucratic indolence dragged on for four long years. "Town politics screwed us," says an angry Betty Kerns, whose dream house has yet to be built.

Pity the poor rich people. With the new economy minting millionaires daily, the flood of money into northern California is igniting passions about property rights from Marin County to San Jose. In Los Altos Hills, longtime residents complain that by building massive, garishly landscaped estates, the new arrivees have trampled the town's greatest asset--its natural beauty. And an obsession with privacy and fences, they argue, is ruining the town's sense of community. The issue has touched off a rancorous skirmish for control of the local government that has resulted in the firing of one town manager, turned neighbor against neighbor and exposed a deep fault line in the seat of wealth in Silicon Valley. "Are we just a bunch of spoiled children who can't play together?" asks Jim Steiner, who ran for city council and lost in March.

It wasn't always this way. Back in 1956 the town's founders wrote about their vision of an open community with "room to walk around our houses without knocking our heads on our neighbors' eaves." They strolled a 75-mile network of horse trails and pathways that snake up hills, between apricot and oak trees and around the town's traditional ranch-style homes, once owned by artsy types like author Wallace Stegner. Of course, living in such an idyllic location never came cheap. But with Internet money creeping up into the hills, the average selling price of a home in the town has skyrocketed to $3.4 million in 2000 from $1.4 million 10 years ago.

Leading the new-money brigade is Toni Casey, a smooth-talking, middle-aged city councilwoman who's demanding more privacy and less government interference in the town. An Internet consultant with a Stanford M.B.A., Casey urged people like the Kernses to challenge the planning department's gripes about the slope of their driveway and the height of their retaining walls--rules that she considered arbitrarily applied. It all led to a bitter special election in March, which Steiner calls "an ugly campaign of lies and distortions" that featured vituperative mass mailings. Steiner lost by 40 votes to a Casey-supported opponent, setting up a new-guard-controlled city council for the first time ever. The new majority wasted no time exerting its influence: in May it quickly ousted the traditionalist city manager. And with three of the five city-council seats up for grabs this November, the new alliance has the chance to cement its majority for good.

In any case, it's clear that the rancor in Silicon Valley's Moneyville isn't going away any time soon. Longtime City Councilwoman Elayne Dauber says Casey is a "Santa Claus" figure, giving everyone what he wants regardless of the consequences to the community. And Dauber complains that all the new fences are ruining the town's historic pathway system, a source of pride for the town's naturalists. But she's in the minority these days, and the building boom goes on. Just this month, after a contentious meeting, the Kernses finally persuaded the city council to greenlight their house on the hill--including a 1,300-foot driveway carved out of the hill's side. But Dauber can't let it alone. Once people like the Kernses get what they want, she wonders, will Los Altos Hills still be the town they want to move into?