Know thy neighbor: LAH residents explore community building

When Scott Vanderlip moved to Los Altos Hills two decades ago, he was surprised by how few of his new neighbors knew their existing neighbors.

By some accounts, Los Altos Hills is even less friendly than it was 20 years ago; the Silicon Valley rat race means less time for casual socialization. The insatiable demand for Bay Area land – particularly acreage located on the fringes of the hubbub – has motivated members of the old guard to cash out and new families to take their place. Conditioned by periodic waves of targeted burglary activity and anecdotes about unsavory short-term rental customers, residents are wary of strangers, and more and more choose to cordon off their property with formidable gates and fences.

“In some places, it’s not very neighborly,” Vanderlip said.

Vanderlip is among a handful of residents currently promoting neighbor-to-neighbor outreach in Los Altos Hills. Motivations range from fostering community to creating a network of residents able to help each other should a disaster like the recent North Bay wildfires occur locally; while neighbors are credited with saving neighbors from the blazes by alerting and even shepherding each other to safety, many of the 43 people who died were elderly and unable to escape on their own.

Lessons from the past

Vanderlip and Los Altos Hills resident Alex Atkins co-authored an article titled “Get to know your neighbors” for the November town newsletter, scheduled for publication later this month. In a draft, they reference the North Bay fires and the July 1, 1985, Liddicoat fire, which caused an estimated $9 million in damage to Los Altos Hills homes and the surrounding area. Their article includes a spreadsheet for recording the names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of one’s neighbors.

“Whether you use this form or your own, the important thing is to fill it out as soon as possible, to be ready for any natural disaster or emergency. … As the residents of Liddicoat Lane or Northern California discovered, it can mean the difference between life and death,” Atkins and Vanderlip wrote.

Vanderlip is quick to explain that the forms are intended for neighbor-to-neighbor use; town officials are not collecting the information to generate a database of residents’ contact information.

“Now you have an excuse to go knock on a neighbor’s door. … It’s kind of a way to break the ice,” he said.

In 2016, Vanderlip created a similar spreadsheet for his neighbors in Pinecrest, where he owns a vacation home. Pinecrest homeowners are often away from their properties for extended periods of time, and knowing one’s neighbors and their contact information is important should a leak or fire present itself.

“People learn to share where their keys are hidden and how to turn off the power and water,” he said.

It was Los Altos Hills’ ongoing short-term rental debate that prompted Vanderlip to introduce the neighborhood contact list idea locally. He said squabbles related to noise, trash and parking need not have escalated to official regulation; town staff members are currently drafting a short-term rental ordinance for Planning Commission members to consider at their Dec. 7 meeting.

“I think a lot of issues could have been solved if (neighbors) had gone and talked to the property owners,” Vanderlip said.

Possible project revival

Vanderlip’s contact forms are complementary to a second “know thy neighbors” effort the town’s Parks and Recreation and Community Relations committees are considering: reviving the Neighborhood Network Program, a project spearheaded in 2009 by resident Joan Sherlock and former Los Altos Hills County Fire District Emergency Services coordinator Mike Sanders. The project was meant to combine the district’s Community Emergency Response Team and Personal Emergency Preparedness training with community building.

“This program will increase neighborhood awareness as well as fellowship and familiarity with all the people in your immediate vicinity,” Sherlock wrote in a 2009 town newsletter article. “It will also help us spot any people with special needs, (who) should be helped in case of emergency.”

The project eventually fizzled out, but members of both committees discussed revisiting it at their October meetings. They’ve since reached out to Sherlock, and she plans to attend the Community Relations Committee’s Nov. 28 meeting to learn more.

“I think anything you can do to take care of your community and to improve communications between neighbors, it’s just the caring thing to do,” Sherlock said. “It’s the right thing and the caring thing to do. Even if an emergency never comes up, it’s a good thing to know your neighbors anyway and to take care of each other.”

The trick will be identifying a champion willing to accept ownership of the project and lead it to fruition, according to Roy Woolsey, Community Relations Committee chairman.

“So far in my inquiries, no one has been willing to step forward and lead the effort, so it is quite possible that the program will not be revived for lack of someone to lead the effort,” Woolsey wrote in an email to the Town Crier.

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