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ACLU files lawsuit challenging Foothills Park restrictions

Foothills Park
Courtesy of Vigil for Democracy
Protesters marched into Foothills Park in July and August to voice their opposition to the Palo Alto preserve’s exclusivity.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the city of Palo Alto alleging racial discrimination due to an ordinance that prohibits nonresidents from entering Foothills Park.

The ACLU Foundation filed the complaint Tuesday (Sept. 15) in Santa Clara County Superior Court on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of San Jose/Silicon Valley and 10 residents of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. None of the individual plaintiffs live in Los Altos Hills, though Foothills Park’s Page Mill Road entrance is located in the town and residents have joined in recent protests to urge the opening of the 1,400-acre preserve to all.

Since the 1960s, a Palo Alto city ordinance has made entering Foothills Park a misdemeanor crime for nonresidents, meaning trespassers could face imprisonment of up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Guards check the identification of visitors approaching the parking lot by motor vehicle; nonresidents are turned away if they’re not accompanied by a friend or family member with a Palo Alto driver’s license.

The ACLU lawsuit alleges the ordinance is based on and perpetuates the city’s past history of segregation and housing discrimination to exclude minorities, forcing them into areas like East Palo Alto. It claims violations of the U.S. and state constitutions through infringement of the plaintiffs’ “fundamental rights of freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly” and requests the court invalidate the ordinance.

Retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, a Black Palo Alto resident, is among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs who allege disparity in the way Foothills Park guards treat visitors based on their perceived socioeconomic status.

“During a small protest on June 27, 2020, Plaintiff Cordell witnessed a young, white non-resident family in an electric car being admitted to the Park,” according to the lawsuit. “Although not City residents, they were allowed in as so-called ‘guests’ of the guard. The person seeking to enter immediately after that young family, a female driver who was planning to join the protest inside the Park, was refused entry, as were two pedestrians and a single male from East Palo Alto driving an older Chevrolet truck, who stated that he has been repeatedly refused access in the past.”

Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission members have advocated for a one-year pilot program opening Foothills Park to nonresidents who pay a fee. At the Aug. 3 city council meeting, five of the seven council members voted in favor of a motion directing staff to draft an ordinance allowing the program. However, they requested conditions the remaining two members – Mayor Adrian Fine and Alison Cormack – deem infeasible and unlikely to secure final council approval. Those conditions include ensuring the $200,000 endeavor remains revenue-neutral and placing the issue on the 2022 ballot for Palo Alto voters to decide; a city attorney warned council members they cannot legally bind a future council to a ballot measure.

A representative from Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada’s office responded Wednesday by email to a Town Crier request for comment.

"The City has not been served with a lawsuit and does not comment on litigation," wrote Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communications officer. "As the Council directed in August, the City is developing a pilot program to increase access to Foothills Preserve. This issue will return to Council in the fall."

Related:

Aug. 4, 2020: Foothills Park pilot program remains under consideration

July 21, 2020: Citing discrimination, Hills residents & others protest park’s exclusivity

July 5, 2017: LAH officials seek access, safety improvements at exclusive park

 

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