Portola Valley revises lighting policies | July 18, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - July 18, 2018

Portola Valley revises lighting policies

by Dave Boyce

It's dark on moonless nights in Portola Valley, due in part to longstanding rules that discourage residents from the use of outdoor lights that interfere with pedestrians' views of the stars. Lights triggered by movements of people and other creatures have been particularly held in disfavor.

That touchstone is expected to fade away. Motion-sensitive lights are now encouraged by the Town Council, which on July 11 unanimously approved measures that update the town's residential design guidelines (by resolution) and the municipal code (by ordinance).

By its votes, the council took the first step of a two-step process to enact a new ordinance on outdoor lighting. The changes go into effect 30 days after the council votes a second time on the ordinance, a step that usually takes place at the following council meeting.

Under current rules, motion sensors are associated with flood lights, which the guidelines call "inappropriate" and to be avoided. The new law will prohibit flood lights and encourage motion sensors to be used with low-intensity, downward-facing illumination that is sufficient to light a walkway or doorway. The sensors must not respond to movements beyond a property line, and must meet standards of the International Dark Sky Association.

The town will be applying for membership in the association, Town Hall staff said.

The legislation is the result of extended analysis by the town's Architectural & Site Control Commission and the Planning Commission in the wake of two brutal home-invasion robberies.

The 2016 robberies triggered a community movement to improve safety and discourage crime. Cameras now record the license plates of every vehicle entering or leaving town, and residents have formed, so far, 32 neighborhood watch groups that cover about a third of all households, according to town spokesman Ali Taghavi.

No strings of lights

The revised residential design guidelines advise residents to restrict the use of lights to doorways and trash areas, to direct them inward toward a property's center rather than toward property lines, to use lights from the warmer end of the visible spectrum so as to avoid negative effects on animals, and to equip them to shut off automatically.

Along with the prohibition of flood lights, other types of lights now banned include up-lights, searchlights and strings of lights — such as festoon or cafe lights. Holiday lights would be allowed for no more than 60 days per calendar year.

In discussing the character of a light, the reference is to lumens, a measure of brightness, rather than to watts, a measure of energy used.

"Clearly a lot of work has gone into this," Councilman Craig Hughes said at a recent meeting in which the council commented on a draft of the ordinance. "Generally, it's exactly the update I was hoping for."

The town should alert people to the changes with a flyer so they're aware before submitting plans for new construction or remodeling projects, Councilman Jeff Aalfs said.

Councilwoman Ann Wengert called the ordinance "a great set of changes (that is) overdue."

"A great job," architect and Mayor John Richards said. "Bringing us into the present century is a good idea." Richards added that he thinks people tend to overestimate the amount of light they need to walk around outdoors at night.


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