Little progress made in San Ramon's Harlan House relocation debate

Apparent miscommunication between city officials, project proponents prompts delay on move talks

Progress toward making a decision about whether to move San Ramon's Harlan House slowed to a near halt Tuesday because of an apparent lack of communication between San Ramon planning officials, the city's Open Space Advisory Committee and the family hoping to relocate and preserve the deteriorating 160-year-old home.

The Starkweather family proposes to move the Harlan House, now located on San Ramon Valley Boulevard and owned by the El Nido Trust, to their property on Pine Valley Road behind Forest Home Farms Historic Park. The plan would save the house and allow the El Nido Trust to move forward with their desire to develop their property with new homes.

While Tuesday night's commission meeting was scheduled to discuss recommendations developed by the city's open space committee, planning commissioners quickly learned that a formal written version of the committee's recommendations was never sent to the Starkweathers.

"(My brother and I) were not aware of that meeting," Timothy Starkweather told the commission, referring to a meeting at which the open space committee drafted its counter-proposal. "We never received any communication of any kind about the meeting. In fact, the first that either (of us) had ever heard about these comments were this evening."

The Starkweathers submitted a proposal for city review of their plan to move the Harlan House about 1.25 miles from its current location to 2610 Pine Valley Road. The relocation site has a conservation easement in place to preserve the open space and scenic values of the property in perpetuity, so the city would need to approve an easement amendment to accommodate the move.

The Open Space Advisory Committee reviewed the Starkweather proposal over three meetings this year before recommending that the family clarify and modify five different points of concern related to the project that is aimed at preserving one of the San Ramon Valley's oldest homes -- which might otherwise face demolition.

The committee's points included strengthening the conservation easement, expanding the scope of that easement, trail signage, considering additional trail segments in the area and clarifying the use of the staging area.

However, the points were apparently never relayed to the Starkweather family before the Planning Commission meeting.

"Somewhere along the line, it feels like the appropriate people in the city failed to give you written notice of what the open space committee was looking for, and to give you an opportunity in writing to respond," commissioner Rick Marks said Tuesday night at City Hall.

The commissioners felt the Starkweather family should be given the chance to respond before the commission gives final input. The commission members also said they were missing information about the open space committee's five recommendations, leaving little room for further feedback.

"There's the subject of amending the (conservation easement) contract, but the problem is that the two parties haven't gotten together and said 'here's the specific terms that we want to amend,'" commissioner Eric Wallis said.

"The problem we're having ... is we're being asked to give a recommendation to the City Council to change the contract, and we don't know what specific terms are being asked of us," he added.

Starkweather and the Planning Commission also discussed project costs Tuesday. Starkweather estimated that the entire project, including moving the house and preserving it, would take multiple years and cost at least $1 million.

He and the commissioners seemed to agree that the Harlan House was in poor condition, resulting in an extensive preservation process that could cost nearly $200 a square foot. "The whole lower section is in such disrepair that we will have to re-veneer at least the bottom one-third of the house," he said.

Under the family's proposal, the house would be moved to a temporary location, located next to the proposed new location, where it would be lifted in the air. Crews would replace the bottom of the house with structural materials. In the process, a new foundation would be built in the permanent location, and once both were completed, the house would be moved to the Pine Valley Road site.

Starkweather also hopes to add a carriage house and kitchen, as well as period-specific landscaping and pavement, with the goal or representing what the house would have looked like when it was originally built in the 1850s.

Upon preserving the Harlan House, Starkweather hopes that people can take tours of the house to gain a better idea of what an operating farmhouse of that era would look like.

"Several times a year, there are opportunities for open houses at the historic Forest Farm. What we want to do is make this house available to the general public during the same time," Starkweather said, acknowledging the proposed relocation site is directly to the side of Forest Home Farms Historic Park.

The lone citizen speaker Tuesday was Beverly Lane, curator of the Museum of San Ramon Valley, who said the museum supports saving the house. She added that the Harlan family was significant not only for San Ramon, but also as residents of California who were involved in the gold rush.

"I would hope that the council representing San Ramon would understand how valuable it (Harlan House) was because of its history," said Lane, who is also a San Ramon Valley historian and a member of East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors.

She also told the commission the Harlan House is the oldest house in San Ramon. It is not designated as an historic structure.

The commissioners ultimately decided they wanted to give the Starkweathers time to receive, review and respond to the recommendations of the Open Space Advisory Committee -- after which, the commission would make a formal recommendation to the City Council about whether to approve the Starkweathers' plan.

The next meeting on the proposal was estimated to occur in mid-January.

Without timely relocation, the Harlan House could face demolition because the El Nido Trust -- the home's owner -- wants to develop the Harlan House property at 19251 San Ramon Valley Blvd. with new homes.

The El Nido Trust has offered the house to the city in the past, but the city hasn't wanted to take on long-term obligations associated with house restoration and maintenance, according to city staff. With no apparent alternative available, the trust in March submitted a demolition permit request to tear down the Harlan House to clear space for a potential development.

But the demolition plan, which would likely require a full environmental impact report and a statement of overriding considerations due to the possibility of the house being listed as a historic resource, has been on hold after the Starkweather family introduced their relocation idea in July, city officials said.

Editor's note: Amanda Morris is a freelance writer for

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