Burglars and robbers may see the darkness, wealth and semi-rural tranquility of Portola Valley as an invitation to perpetrate crime, but residents and the Town Council, energized by home-invasion robberies in mid-June and mid-October, are considering steps that would change any such impression.
The Town Council met Nov. 9 in a session devoted to addressing public safety. About 70 people attended and took most of the seats in the Community Hall. Three deputies from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office stood in back, and in the audience was recently retired sheriff Greg Munks, also a resident of Portola Valley.
At the request of Town Hall staff, the council revisited and is likely to approve the purchase of cameras to capture the license plate numbers of all vehicles entering and leaving the town.
The council gave a green light to hiring a part-time person to help set up neighborhood-watch groups, explore changes to policies that discourage motion-activated lights, and identify technologies to assist homeowners to collaborate with law enforcement, including with a new 911 center scheduled to open in late 2018 in Redwood City.
The staff report cited the many places in the town's zoning code that restrict lighting, streetlights, landscaping, gates, fencing and signs so that they blend with the natural environment. Such restrictions aren't necessarily consistent with preventing crime. If the council asks for changes in those restrictions, staff can make recommendations, Town Manager Jeremy Dennis said. But he urged caution.
"These features are what attract new residents to Portola Valley, and are the reason there are so many founding residents still living here," Mr. Dennis said. "Depending on the issue area, even small changes could result in a profoundly different community than the one enjoyed today."
The council nixed the idea of exploring an independent Portola Valley police force. Research showed the town would not be better served and would pay more for services than it does now under contract with the Sheriff's Office, according to a staff report.
On the home front, the council heard a plethora of ideas from residents, including neighborhood-watch signs in yards, panic buttons in homes, and further scrutiny of solicitors. One resident said questions he was asked by a door-to-door canvasser raised his suspicions.
The county is building a new 911 center scheduled to open in 2018 in Redwood City, Mr. Dennis said. High-tech links between the center and homeowners is likely to become a key component of the town's safety program.
Relatively inexpensive home surveillance cameras, including cameras that can read license plates in the dark, were mentioned. One resident said the council should keep the door open to the use of drones.
The public spoke for about an hour, all in support of getting tough on crime. But opinions did differ.
"We live in an extremely safe town," Mr. Munks said in advocating for the license-plate-reading cameras. "We're all blessed to live here in one of the safest communities in the county and the state. Very, very safe."
On resident said there's been lots of talk about using technology to catch the bad guys, "but the real win here is if nothing happens at all," he said. "The real benefit will be ... that the word gets out, that (Portola Valley) is a hard target, ... that you (the burglar) are not going to be effective in your goal. You're going to fail for one reason or another."
Another resident spoke in favor of cameras and coordinated action. "I think we need to get (people with arrest warrants and past criminal records) off of our streets, not just around here but in the adjacent communities and counties, and we need to develop a concerted effort and offer our support and cooperation in these efforts," she said.
Regarding changing town policies on night lighting, she said: "Please don't. It's so sacred. We've preserved it for so long. ... People can't find our front door. I don't want to light the path that tells them where it is."
Another resident said she has been "very frustrated" with the council's "incredible amount of foot dragging." She offered support to a previous speaker's suggestion of decals to distinguish residents' vehicles from those of outsiders. "I thought that was actually brilliant," she said. "I hope that is seriously taken under consideration." And the town should ask residents how they feel about "the lighting issue."
One resident said she engaged a person at Wunderlich Park in Woodside because his vehicle had New York license plates. She said she approached the driver and said, "Hey, you're not from town. Where are you from? Are you new to the area?"
"He was there when I left (for a hike), he was there when I came back." He could have been "scoping the cars," she said.
"I'm tired of taking pictures of licenses," she added. "I don't want to take pictures anymore. Please pass this license-plate-reader (initiative) and let us take control of our town. Let them be scared to come into our town."
The number of burglaries fluctuates, Councilman Craig Hughes noted. Some years it's been half a dozen, others 30, all numbers too small to detect a trend, he said.
"We need to not just have a cosmetic thing that's not going to have any real effect," he said. The key is to combine the cameras with other resources, Mr. Hughes said.
The town's police budget is low compared with other communities, he said. Maybe the town should pay for a detective working an eight-hour shift two or three days a week and focusing on crime in Portola Valley. Maybe more sophisticated motion detectors would minimize the effect on darkness at night?
He encouraged everyone to participate, and to look out for themselves and their neighbors.
As for fear, it is "100 percent each individual's responsibility. You can be afraid or not be afraid," Mr. Hughes said.
"I've talked to my kids. They know about what's been happening in town," he said, his voice breaking. "I've been talking about what we're doing as a town to help, what their mom and I are doing to help, and how they're safe! They should feel safe. We'll do what we can do as a town. Everybody has to help take part in this."