To prevent crime, Portola Valley may change its residential design guidelines


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.

The commission meets at the Historic Schoolhouse at 765 Portola Road.

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.

Working together

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."


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Posted by FourthEstate
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Mar 10, 2017 at 8:49 am

Correction: There have been 2 reported burglaries of occupied homes in 2017 (not 2016, as stated in this article) as of March 9th. In 2016, there were two home-invasion armed robberies, including an assault on the homeowner and threatened family.

Like this comment
Posted by Dave Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Mar 10, 2017 at 10:32 am

Dave Boyce is a registered user.

Burglaries and robberies are different crimes. A burglary occurs when someone enters a building without permission in order to commit another crime, such as theft, according to

A robbery involves taking the personal property of someone while in that person's presence, against that person's will and under the threat of force, intimidation or the use of violence, says.

Burglaries are not uncommon in Portola Valley, according to records of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office. Robberies are rare.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Mar 10, 2017 at 12:32 pm

If your house has been hit twice, then you need to look at (a) who has been doing work at your house (b) who has been doing work at a neighbor's house, such that they could observe your daily routine (c) befriending your neighbors, so that they will keep their eyes out, same as you should be doing for them (d) getting a dog. Most burglaries are taking place during the daytime hours.

Another suggestion: try watching the tv series "It Takes A Thief To Catch A Thief," from 2014. It gives excellent insight into what a burglar looks for in a potential hit, and what steps the homeowner should take to make their home undesirable. Removing backyard fencing, rocks that can be brought over to a window, adding a dog, locking up valuables, not leaving keys out, locking the car AND the garage-to-house many things that can deter a burglar without annoying your neighbors or changing the whole town.

It never ceases to amaze me that people move to Portola Valley, and then immediately want to change it into a Menlo Park, Palo Alto, or Atherton.

Last thought: Where are the APLRs? Our town has a surplus of money. What aren't we addressing THIS?

Like this comment
Posted by Dave Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Mar 10, 2017 at 12:38 pm

Dave Boyce is a registered user.

The Portola Valley Town Council has authorized town staff to look into the logistics of buying, installing and maintaining fixed license-plate-reading cameras to be located at the entrances and exits of town.

While the matter has not come before the council yet in 2017, an agenda item is likely sooner rather than later.

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Posted by Chris Bay
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Mar 11, 2017 at 11:14 am

If you want to put an end to these crimes make it clear that anyone attempting to violate the property rights of Portola Valley home owners will be SHOT ON SIGHT. This was always implied when I grew up in the Valley and crime was kept at a minimum. Potential criminals knew the consequences of their actions and as a result we lived with the peace of mind that we didn't even have to lock our doors day or night unless we where gone for an extended period of time. We had flood lights on our home and used them when we heard a noise outside. Usually the noise was just a deer or other animal or the floods would scare off who or what ever was there. We also had a loyal big dog that warned us of a possible intruder and made enough noise to let anyone that didn't belong on the property that we weren't easy pray. As kids we would go out and play all day long and come home for meals, our parents knew we would be safe from creeps. You all need to take your heads out of your behinds and get serious about protecting your families. The Portola Patrol can only do so much to patrol your neighborhoods. Letting the outside world know you are willing to do what ever it takes to protect yourselves and your property will go a long way to bringing security to your lives. Pass laws that will back up any actions you take to protect yourselves without having to worry about being arrested for doing so. Good luck and remember what I have said is tried and true and you don't have to reinvent the wheel.

Like this comment
Posted by pvrez
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Mar 13, 2017 at 8:48 am

@Chris Bay - that was funny, nice try.

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Posted by Chris Bay
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Mar 15, 2017 at 10:03 am

PVREZ: Nothing funny about living in a place where you can't feel safe.

As to what I said before if you aren't willing to KILL someone that threatens your family, then you might as well install razor wire and put in guard towers and imprison yourselves in your homes. Letting the outside world know you are armed and willing to defend yourself is the best Offensive move you can make. As for the hired help, enforce the law to the fullest. If they are caught make sure they know their face will be posted at all employment agencies and circulated to every home up and down the Peninsula. They will never work again after they get out of jail.

Like this comment
Posted by caroline V
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Mar 20, 2017 at 7:38 pm

Thank you Almanac and Dave Boyce for keeping us updated.
First of all no data has been presented how PV residents feel and what they would like. I have requested the data from PV Manager Mr. Dennis and added the comment that not all PV residents are subscribed to PV nextdoor, the Almanac and in order to make a decision that confirms the will of the people Mr Dennis will have to include all PV residents.
Our family never got Mr. Dennis' survey.

California has a huge debt:(
California failed to repay its federal loans and we, small business owners, pay the penalties through yearly increased unemployment taxes: : Web Link
Governor Brown has already warned us California faces a 2 billion deficit Web Link
and CalPERS reports have expressed their concerns regarding the $300 billion state pension fund for 1.7 million government employees: Web Link

Despite the debt and problems with Calpers, all town council official, school board officials, and supervisors continue to increase government jobs, government programs demanding more Tax payers money withoutt fiscal responsibility and accountability - all referring to get their financial resources through the "general fund"
I encourage residents to read the ALPR info online -

I am really concerned because the policy does not allow the public to see the data law enforcement collects and it seems that the data is collected for a limited time.

Furthermore if you have followed the scandasl about law enforcement in the Bay Area in the last 2 years and have dealt with Law enforcement you might and should be skeptical - yes our laws demand that they enforce the law and their code of ethics demand professional conduct, but over and over we see our law enforcement involved in fraud, crime and corruption, and nobody can hold them accountable.
Both District Attorney Rosen and District Attorney Wagstaffe refuse to allow grand juries to investigate misconduct by law enforcement.
Furthermore Governor Brown and former Attorney General Harris and many elected officials have released prisoners and lowered the sentences.
What good will it do to make the huge financial expense if those who are convicted (if even convicted?) will not be prosecuted?
Thank you,

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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