It has been a disquieting week and a half in Portola Valley. Anxiety is elevated after an Oct. 18 daytime residential burglary, an infrequent but not uncommon event, but one that happened just five days after three men with handguns invaded and robbed a home nearby after dark. That was the second home-invasion robbery in six months in this normally quiet, semi-rural suburb.
In the immediate aftermath of the burglary, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office deployed its airplane to overfly the town. "Sheriff's Office Air1 was up for about one hour assisting in perimeter search for any suspects," Detective Salvador Zuno told the Almanac. A special investigative team is also working in town, and there have been extra patrols.
Town Manager Jeremy Dennis, in an interview, noted that a home invasion is a type of crime that, prior to 2016, "we have never seen," adding that "there is a real sense of concern and fear from some people, which is completely understandable."
Mayor Maryann Moise Derwin amplified that view in an email. "The illusion of being safe in one's own home was shattered after the second home invasion," she said. "Now people are afraid for their lives and for the lives of their children. I just talked to someone today who shared with me a story about a dog sitter who refused to stay overnight in Portola Valley after the home invasion and the burglary."
Alpine Hills resident Carol Sontag said the recent crimes "(don't) make me feel fearful but really more hyper-vigilant with an increased awareness when I am out and about in the community. I believe in the power of individuals coming together to fight back against this recent crime spree."
The Town Council has scheduled a community discussion on town safety for Wednesday, Nov. 9, in the Community Hall at 765 Portola Road. The council meeting begins at 7 p.m. The discussion will include a topic the council has talked about several times: installing fixed license-plate-reading cameras near town borders to capture images of the plate of every vehicle entering or leaving town.
Sheriff's deputies who patrol Portola Valley will visit the Community Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 2, between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. to introduce themselves and take questions from residents.
Mr. Dennis said that while the residential burglary did affect levels of anxiety, most people are looking forward to the community discussion on Nov. 9.
End of the road
Portola Valley, a town of 4,600 where the median price for a home is $3.6 million, backs up against an uninhabited eastern slope of the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, practically at the end of Alpine Road. The road does continue up into the hills, but as a narrow mountain road.
Portola Valley is green during the day thanks to plentiful open space and protected scenic vistas, and dark at night, an aspect of rural character that the town values and regulates.
"Excessive lighting on an individual site (and/or the impact of cumulative lighting on adjoining sites) 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," the town's Residential Design Guidelines say.
The guidelines state a preference for lights to be manually controlled or on timers rather than lighting up in the presence of motion, which animals and passing cars can trigger. "Such situations disturb both the natural conditions in the area and nearby residents," the guidelines say. "Individual control of lighting by the property owner is preferred."
At the council meeting on Nov. 9. motion-activated lights are a safety option to be evaluated, Mayor Derwin said.
Lorrie Duval lives in the Alpine Hills neighborhood, where the robberies and recent burglary took place. Ms. Duval said she and her neighbors are organizing a neighborhood watch, securing their homes and getting to know each other.
"Is taking action helping (to address the fear)?" she asked, answering an Almanac question. "It absolutely is helping."
"We like to do as much as we can to maintain that rural ambiance out here (but) some adjustments may have to be made," she added. "The times are a-changing and we need to change with them."