Portola Valley year in review: Home safety a major concern


With two home-invasion robberies in four months in Portola Valley, the second and most violent incident in October, it's been a time of living cautiously for some residents -- a trend that's likely to continue into 2017.

Residents in this semi-rural community are setting up neighborhood watch groups, putting up outdoor surveillance cameras, and talking about changes to longstanding town policies such as those that discourage motion-sensitive lights so as to protect the night vision of passersby gazing at the stars.

Town Manager Jeremy Dennis, hired in March, is studying the logistics of buying, installing and maintaining fixed automatic license-plate-reading cameras at key locations in town. While the Town Council has not yet given a green light to acquiring the cameras, that's likely to happen after Mr. Dennis completes his preliminary work.

For almost two years, the council put off installing fixed cameras, given the expense and the lack of reliable evidence that they are an effective crimefighting tool. But public opinion is now weighing in the cameras' favor.

After the second home-invasion incident, Mr. Dennis surveyed residents with a one-question poll: "Do you support the purchase of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) for use in Portola Valley?" Of 742 responses, 583 (or 78 percent) said "yes," Mr. Dennis said. One-hundred-thirty-seven residents answered "no," and 14 did not express an opinion, he said.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office held a community meeting on home safety in June after the first robbery, and a meet-and-greet in November after the second. About 30 deputies attended.

A week later, the council held a community discussion on home safety. About 70 people attended, and those who spoke supported the idea of license-plate-reading cameras and suggested other ways to improve readiness and toughen the town's reputation.

One woman said she wanted a regional effort by police to get people with criminal records off the streets. Another spoke of decals for cars that indicate who is and who is not a Portola Valley resident. Another said she was "tired" of photographing license plates on her own.

Sounding a note of reassurance, resident and former county sheriff Greg Munks called Portola Valley "one of the safest communities in the county and the state. Very, very safe."

Deputies have called the two robberies random incidents, and Councilman Craig Hughes, recently elected mayor for 2017, noted that crime rate numbers in town are too small to detect a trend.

Mr. Hughes reminded residents that fear is "100 percent each individual's responsibility. You can be afraid or not be afraid," he said. "I've talked to my kids," he added. "They know about what's been happening in town. 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."

Affordable housing

In deciding priorities for 2017 in April, the council topped the list with the lack of housing affordable to people who work in town. Town Manager Dennis called the problem a regional crisis, but also "a Portola Valley-centric problem that has Portola Valley-centric solutions."

Among the ideas discussed at an October meeting: expanding second-unit options to parcels smaller than one acre, allowing larger second units, and looking into ways to lower the typical $600,000 cost of building a second unit. Asked about modular "tiny" homes, Planning Director Debbie Pedro said they are permitted, provided they meet zoning requirements and sit on a foundation. One resident suggested a group purchase of prefabricated homes.

Another idea: Survey employers and employees in town on the desirability of living in housing on employer-owned property. A survey "really puts a face on this whole issue," Mr. Hughes said at the time.

Councilwomen Ann Wengert and Maryann Derwin will serve on an affordable-housing study committee along with two Planning Commission members and three residents. Six residents applied and three will be appointed in January, Ms. Derwin said.

Other council priorities for 2017 include better code enforcement, better communication with residents, support for alternative sources for electricity, addressing aircraft noise, and widening the shoulder of Portola Road at narrow spots.

New manager

Town Manager Jeremy Dennis joined the staff at Town Hall in March. Mr. Dennis was the top aide to state Assemblyman Rich Gordon for nearly five years. His duties included developing legislative ideas for Mr. Gordon and managing his affairs when he was not in the district.

He came to Portola Valley from City Hall in Palo Alto, where as the advance planning manager, he was responsible for oversight of the city's comprehensive plan update, its programs to regulate commercial occupancy, its environmental review processes, and its housing matters, including block grants and below-market-rate housing.

Mr. Dennis, 42, is a resident of Redwood City, has a bachelors' degree in political science and U. S. history from the University of California at Davis, and a master's degree in regional and urban planning from the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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