Updated, 12:20 p.m. Aug. 11: Student protesters plan to march into Foothills Park Wednesday (Aug. 12) afternoon, their latest demonstration against Palo Alto laws limiting the 1,400-acre preserve to residents only.
Wednesday’s demonstration was prompted by the Palo Alto City Council’s decision last week to consider a proposed one-year pilot program opening the park to nonresidents. Although council members directed staff to draft an ordinance allowing the program, their motion to do so contains so many conditions that the resulting legislation might be destined for failure when it returns to them for consideration; it includes language about bringing the issue to Palo Alto voters on the 2022 ballot; renaming Foothills Park to “Foothills Nature Preserve,” presumably to suggest a protected status; changing the penalty for trespassers from a misdemeanor to an administrative citation; and ensuring the pilot remains revenue neutral for the city.
“They sort of suggested they were going to open the policy ever so slightly, but I think, in reality, the conditions that they put on even just a pilot are infeasible,” said Ryan McCauley, a former Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission member who resigned in June due to frustration about repeated delays implementing the program.
Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who cast the only “no” votes among the seven-member council, preferred a less-restrictive motion recommended by the commission. They do not believe the pilot program can be revenue neutral and they doubt the council’s ability to legally bind a future council to a ballot measure.
“I think some of this is kind of getting into reductive arguments where we’ll kill it with 1,000 cuts,” Fine said. “And I think it’s important for us to be somewhat brave but also somewhat just in opening this space up to a limited number of (nonresidents). I don’t want to derail what is obviously the right thing to do.”
The mayor is expected to deliver a speech as part of Wednesday’s protest.
‘This Park Is My Park’
Thirty-two members of the public, including some Los Altos residents, spoke at the Aug. 3 council meeting. One speaker employed a chime sound to accentuate each “Shame!” he directed at critics of the pilot. Former Palo Alto Mayor Leland Levy set his thoughts to a familiar Woody Guthrie tune.
“This park is my park; it is not your park. From Lake Boronda to the Page Mill roadway. From Monte Bello to Arastradero, this park was meant for only me,” Levy sang, filling nearly the entirety of his allotted two minutes with verse after satirical verse.
Palo Alto resident Carlin Otto’s message was more pointed. She cited an informal poll of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood that indicates at least 33% of its residents believe the pilot will degrade the park’s “pristine condition.”
“I would sincerely hope that you do not intend or wish to force this down our throats,” Otto told council members. “Remember: We the residents of Palo Alto are the owners of Foothills – not you. Your job is to manage this resource according to our wishes.”
History of exclusivity
Since opening in 1965, access to Foothills Park has been restricted to Palo Alto residents and their guests, though rangers do not typically staff the Page Mill Road guard house on the weekdays and hikers using the Bay-to-Ridge trail may enter without hindrance. Trespassing is considered a misdemeanor, but no such citation has been issued in at least 20 years.
The park’s exclusivity has long proved a contentious issue, however, with some Bay Area residents suggesting the residents-only rule is retribution to other communities like Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, which declined to contribute financially when Palo Alto purchased the land from the Lee family in the late 1950s for $1.3 million. Others suggest it is racially motivated, a continuation of Palo Alto’s past history of segregationist tactics like redlining, the practice of classifying certain neighborhoods – predominantly Black ones – as too risky for the issuance of mortgages.
As proposed by the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Foothills Park pilot program would allow nonresidents to reserve passes online by paying $6 per vehicle. Commissioners say they can control overcrowding by limiting the number of passes available to 50 per day, especially on traditionally busy holidays like Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Their plan is to cap the number of visitors to 1,000 at any given time.
Parks and Recreation Commission staff liaison Daren Anderson estimates the pilot could lead to a 10-19% increase in visitation. Compared to 2019, the park this year has experienced approximately an 8% decrease in foot traffic on weekdays and, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 137% increase on weekends.
Concerns about the program expressed by council members last week included its potential effects on habitat and wildlife; the added cost of repairing and maintaining infrastructure like restrooms within the park; increased exposure to fire threats for the land and of COVID-19 to visitors; and the potential necessity of pulling financial resources from other city programs to pay for the endeavor, estimated to cost $198,000.
“I don’t see where $200,000 is going to come from to do this,” Councilman Eric Filseth said. “I think a number of the speakers said it’s time to go beyond symbolism and take some concrete actions here, but this, actually, seems to me about as symbolic as it’s possible to get. I mean, we’ve got 34 other parks in town that are all open to everybody. … I think some people feel really passionate about this, but I think it’s really a stretch to call this a racial kind of thing.”