Evenings are dark in Portola Valley thanks to town-wide low-lighting practices, an aspect of living there at Dave Ross likes when walking his dog. "I love being out there and thinking that I can almost catch a glimpse of the Milky Way," he said during a recent study session on home security by the Architectural & Site Control Commission, which he chairs.
In the interest of maintaining those dark skies while also addressing more recent concerns about property crime and home security, the commission met once in a study session (on Feb. 27) and plans to meet for a second session – at 7 p.m. Monday, March 13 -- this time with a staff report that includes research on current trends in lighting that does not ruin the darkness.
After two robberies of occupied homes in 2016, several community meetings with deputies on home security issues, and the formation of neighborhood watch groups, the commission met Feb. 27 to discuss the idea of modifications to the town's residential design guidelines, particularly the use of motion-sensitive lights in addressing advantages that darkness may give to criminals.
The town's conservation handbook lauds the "night skies with visible constellations (as) treasures which we all enjoy." The design guidelines discourage lighting that "can create a glow that tends to obscure the night sky and stars, and results in a community that is more urban and less rural."
(Burglars hit two homes in the Woodside Highlands neighborhood recently, on Feb. 23 and March 2, but those incidents happened during daylight hours, according to reports from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.)
A rural ethos has long prevailed in Portola Valley, but at least one resident is talking about change.
"There seems to be a mindset that basically was accurate to hold for some 50 years that our personal security should not be a weighing factor in ... architectural considerations," resident Neil Weintraut told the commission. "Even as crimes were occurring, we continue to hear this, from the town and from people (who) have a lot of influence in our town, but the facts are telling us otherwise."
Security is at "zero" as a weighing factor and it should not be, he said. "There's a real issue here," he said. Interest in motion sensitive lights "isn't people trying to end run the community objective," he said. "People's lives are at stake. Certainly their property is at stake."
The PV Ranch way
Portola Valley Ranch General Manager Leo Gonzales told the Almanac that when it comes to lighting, the Ranch has specific rules -- motion-sensitive lights are allowed, but most must be fixed in place, shaded, pointed down and limited in wattage -- but when safety is involved, Ranch management works with homeowners to find ways to satisfy safety concerns without sacrificing dark-sky standards.
Flood lights are not allowed, he said.
Door- and wall-mounted cameras by Nest are popular in that they work in low-light situations, he said.
Communications among residents and raising awareness is a big part of community safety, he said. And because landscaping is trimmed in the interest of fire safety, it's less likely that burglars could use it to hide, he said.
Among the ideas that the commission considered at the Feb. 27 study session:
• To prevent a proliferation of residential warning signs, the town should consider placing neighborhood-watch signs at the edges of town, at the locations planned for automatic license-plate-reading cameras.
• Landscaping that completely screens a house from neighbors may work to the advantage of criminals wanting to avoid detection.
• Changes to outdoor lighting guidelines should be carefully crafted to consider the variations in what residents think of as a secure home and that also meet dark-sky standards.
The commission heard comments from the public, much of it recognizing the importance of threading the needle of improving home security while not sacrificing rural qualities.
Restrictions on lighting is a serious problem, said a couple who live in Central Portola Valley and who said they have been burglarized twice in five years, first their vehicle and then their house.
More recently, during an inspection of their remodeling project, one of the residents said, they were told by a planning staff member to remove all their outdoor lights, including a motion-sensitive light that illuminated their driveway and the house entrance.
The new lights, designed for dark-sky communities, illuminated just the first 10 to 15 feet of the walkway, leaving the driveway "completely black," the resident said. "It is simply not safe, it is not reasonable and I wish you people would get together when you tell people that the lights are not prohibited," she said. "They were prohibited to us."
Planning Director Debbie Pedro told the resident she would look into it, but suggested that the problem may have been that the installed lights differed from a lighting plan approved by the commission.
The resident's husband interrupted. "Bottom line," he said, "our house has been hit twice. It's a security issue. We're going to put motion-detector lights up there. ... You've got to change your ways. For security purposes, I hope the council will support it."