A thorny issue that has created controversy for decades is about to get a hearing on Aug. 3 before the Palo Alto City Council: whether the city should launch a pilot program to allow non-Palo Alto residents access to the exclusive 1,400-acre Foothills Park.
Spurred by a renewed push for racial and socioeconomic equity amid the recent Black Lives Matter protests, advocates for opening the park to all say its exclusivity is a relic, the product of an antiquated mindset.
Emotions are running high on both sides of the debate. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ryan McCauley — who helped create the proposal that the council will consider Monday for a one-year pilot program to expand park access — resigned in frustration on June 23 after the council postponed its discussion of Foothills until after its July break.
A group of local residents, including former Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell, have formed a group, Parks for All, and launched a website to lobby for opening up the park. They also recruited more than 100 faith and community leaders to sign a letter that urges the repeal of the city ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor offense for nonresidents to enter the park.
On the other side are people like Roger Smith, co-founder and director of the fundraising group Friends of the Palo Alto Parks, who has said that opening the park to more visitors would increase costs for maintenance — costs the budget-strapped city can't currently pay for. In a July 24 op-ed in the Palo Alto Weekly, he argued that now is not the time to make a decision about opening the park, given the pressing financial and staffing issues facing the city because of the pandemic.
Besides the financial considerations, opponents of opening the park to all assert that doing so would inflict damage on the fragile ecosystem. Residents such as Shani Kleinhaus, who is an environmental advocate for the nonprofit Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, argue that Foothills is a special place that has remained so because access is limited. Opening this unspoiled gem to all is an act that would take away from the very qualities that make it special, they say.
On Tuesday night, during a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting about Foothills, Kleinhaus said that she is used to taking frequent hikes in the park. The expansive open space preserve offers opportunities to find bird species as varied as the red-pompadoured, pileated woodpecker, the second largest woodpecker in the U.S.; the belted kingfisher; majestic golden and bald eagles and colorful Western bluebirds and lazuli buntings.
But on a recent visit, she said she encountered plastic bags of dog waste along the trails and loud music blaring from picnickers' boomboxes in the verdant lower meadow. Deer by the dozen usually frequent this spot to graze, but not when humans create a racket.
These problems, while perhaps not new, have been increasing steadily during the COVID-19 outbreak, Kleinhaus said, as residents seek outdoor spaces as relief from the county health officer's stay-at-home order.
Based on what she has seen, Kleinhaus, who was speaking on her own behalf and not for Audubon, told the commissioners she worries giving more people access will damage plant and animal habitats and frighten wildlife away.
"I really don't care who is there and I never have," she said. It's the number of people and their behaviors that make a difference to the environment.
The city should take the park opening to the voters to decide, she said, and perform an environmental-impact study.
Resident Winter Dellenbach told the commissioners she also doesn't care if the visitors are from Palo Alto or other cities but is concerned about moving ahead with a change at this time.
The city had a $40 million budget shortfall that forced the closure of libraries and curtailment of other city services. If opening the park will require added costs for security, registration and infrastructure improvements, now is not the time, she said.
Bounded by Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills, Pearson-Arastradero Preserve and Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, Foothills Park offers spectacular vistas of the Bay Area and 15 miles of trails through rugged chaparral, fields, streams and woodlands.
A checklist of flora and fauna on the iNaturalist website shows that at least 574 different types of plants, spiders, butterflies, moths, birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles, mammals frequent the park. Videos show an elusive bobcat slinking across a remote trail; a flock of wild turkeys pecking in a field; and purple, spotted checker lilies during a spring wildflower jaunt.
The city purchased 1,294 acres of the land from Dr. Russel Lee, founder of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, and his wife, Dorothy, in 1958 on the condition that it would be preserved as open space. The council put the $1.3 million purchase on a ballot in 1959, with 62% of voters supporting the purchase.
The council also asked neighboring cities Los Altos and Los Altos Hills to share the cost. Those cities declined, so Palo Alto restricted access to Palo Alto residents and their guests, Greg Betts, former director of the city's Community Services Department, told the Weekly in 2013.
Daren Anderson, division manager of the city's Open Space, Parks and Golf, told the commissioners on Tuesday there was another reason for the exclusivity, however. Residents who feared Foothills would become a regional park formed Citizens for Good Governance to challenge a proposed plan. They filed a lawsuit against the council, which the California Supreme Court rejected, Anderson said, quoting a 1980 Stanford Daily article.
To appease the citizens group, the council voted to limit access to Palo Alto residents only. They followed up with an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to enter the park illegally, a violation that carried a $50 fine. The city formally dedicated the park in June 1965.
That decision wasn't the end of the debate. In 1974, the American Civil Liberties Union considered suing the city over the residency restriction, according to a story that year in the Stanford Daily. Larry Sleizer, then-chairman of the Midpeninsula chapter of the ACLU, told the Stanford Daily: "The effect of the original decision has prevented Blacks from East Palo Alto and students from using the park."
The city allowed its employees who don't reside in Palo Alto and their families to use the park, he argued, so it should be open to the public.
"Discrimination against nonresidents is unlawful," he said.
The threats of a lawsuit haven't abated: Cordell recently sent the city a letter warning of a lawsuit if the council doesn't immediately agree to stop enforcing its ban on nonresidents.
Similar discrimination claims have been upheld by courts. In a case that is similar to Palo Alto's, a 2001 lawsuit, "Leydon v. Town of Greenwich," the Connecticut Supreme Court found the municipality violated the plaintiff's First Amendment rights when it restricted access to a 147-acre municipal park to only its residents and their guests.
In a 2001 analysis of the case, legal scholar James C. Kozlowski, an associate professor at George Mason University School of Sport, Recreation and Tourism Management, noted the Connecticut state appeals court first ruled the ordinance violated a general legal principle that "municipal parks are deemed to be held in trust for the benefit of the general public and not solely for the use of residents of the municipality."
The state's Supreme Court affirmed the decision, finding that a municipal park is a constitutionally protected public forum, much like a sidewalk or town plaza. Even if a nonresident can find a town resident to accompany him or her to the park, "the mere fact that he or she is required to do so places more than an incidental burden on the nonresident's expressive and associational rights," Kozlowski wrote.
Legal threats notwithstanding, the city did in 2005 open access of Foothills Park to nonresidents, though not by the front gate. That year, Santa Clara County and the California Coastal Conservancy together gave the city $2 million to help Palo Alto purchase 13 acres of private land from the Midpeninsula Open Space Trust to complete Pearson-Arastradero Preserve.
Palo Alto agreed as part of that deal to open a trail through Foothills Park to all visitors, regardless of residency. The trail links part of the Bay-to-Ridge Trail to Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve. Nonresidents who can hike through can visit Foothills Park.
If the park is opened to all, would Foothills become overly burdened by the newcomers? Parks and Recreation Commissioner David Moss, who supports the pilot program that would allow nonresidents in 50 cars or bicycles a day to access the park, expressed concern that there could be a great interest in visiting the park if the number of entrants isn't controlled.
"You know the power of social media. The minute this gets out, social media will take it and run with it," he said.
But the city's estimates of current park attendance cast some doubt that there would be a rush on Foothills Park. Anderson said the city hasn't reached its 1,000-persons-at-a-time limit in more than 20 years. Likewise, rangers have only given out one administrative citation — the equivalent of a parking ticket — and no citations for misdemeanor illegal entry into the park in about the same time frame.
The 1,000-person cap isn't necessarily tied to concerns about human wear-and-tear on the park either. It's based on the number of available parking spaces and an estimate that each vehicle would carry 2.5 occupants, which gets close to the 1,000-person figure, Anderson said.
Foothills had a 2,000-person cap when it opened in 1965; that number was revised down to the current number in the 1990s, he said. But park usage has actually declined. Approximately 292,000 visitors came in 1969; that figure peaked at about 372,000 in the early 1970s. It declined thereafter and through the 1990s. From 2002 to 2019, the park has averaged 152,000 visitors per year, he said, a figure that is based on rangers' periodic counts of vehicles in the park.
The number of nonresident visitors has also been modest. Between 2015 and 2019, about 3,100 nonresident vehicles were turned away, Anderson said.
(The front gate is only staffed by rangers on weekends, however, so the exact number of nonresidents coming to the park is hard to know.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a turnaround, however: a 136% increase in resident-visitors on weekends for the month of June, compared to 2019 and a 7% decrease on weekdays during the same time period, he said.
Five experts invited by the Parks and Recreation Commission to weigh in on the potential impacts and benefits of expanding park access argued on Tuesday that damage to the park isn't due to who comes to visit but rather how those people behave.
Taylor Peterson, director of biological analysis with MIG, an environmental consulting firm that has worked with the city in various parks, including Foothills, said increased usage doesn't have to mean the park environment will decline. Impacts are not only quantitative; they are, perhaps more importantly, qualitative. Two people who make a lot of noise at a picnic site can create more problems than five people who walk quietly on a trail, for example.
Lester Hendrie, a former Foothills Park supervising ranger who worked at the preserve for 30 years, said the length of time a person spends doing an activity also affects the environment — preventing, for example, wildlife from returning to a grazing site.
Peterson recommended the city undertake a baseline study to understand the existing conditions within the park and its current usage, then monitor the space regularly so that any problems can be quickly addressed.
"Spend the time and money to do this right. Have a program of adaptive management so you can reverse issues right away. I think you could open (the park) to nonresidents and still keep a nice preserve. I don't think where somebody comes from impacts the park," she said.
Nonprofit groups and volunteers have been on the front lines of maintaining the park. Ironically, the majority of their work involves repairing damage done by invasive, nonnative plants, not people, according to panelist Alex Von Feldt, executive director of Grassroots Ecology.
Seeds from these plant species, including the highly invasive stinkwort, travel on the tires of construction vehicles working on private developments outside the park and even come in on visitors' shoes.
Grassroots Ecology, which maintains a native plant nursery at the park, has managed hundreds of young volunteers who revegetate areas of the park with native plants, Von Feldt said. But while they've benefited the park, saving the city hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, many of these same volunteers — those who do not live in Palo Alto — feel their enthusiasm wane when they find out they can't use the park.
They start out saying, "This is amazing," Von Feldt said, but when they realize they're doing work on a preserve they can't return to, "it takes the air out of it."
Stanford University Professor Nicole M. Ardoin, a director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, studies the interaction of people and the environment. People are more likely to partner in environmental projects if they have access to Foothills, she told the commission.
And isn't that what a public open space should strive to instill? Von Feldt and others asked.
When people come to love a place, they want to preserve it, to make it better than when they left and to invest in more open space because they understand its value, she said.
Von Feldt also argued that the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 epidemic makes now the right time to open Foothills Park; it would help alleviate some of the strain on Palo Alto's other large open space areas: the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve and Palo Alto Baylands.
Pearson-Arastradero Preserve is experiencing a huge influx of visitors as people have sought open areas where they can keep their social distance. The park has had to hire more security personnel to handle the traffic and parking issues, Von Feldt said.
"We believe opening Foothills Park will have an overall positive effect. We need our wide, open public spaces now more than ever, and this would be a really great time to do it," she said.
If Palo Alto were to lift the park's residency restriction, access wouldn't need to be an all-or-nothing affair. The council could continue to restrict the number of people it allows into the park, as the pilot program proposal recommends. The council could also address environmental concerns by placing limits on people's activities.
Hendrie warned that consideration should be given to the additional burdens that more visitors would place on park rangers: more staffing of the entrance; more garbage and restroom cleanup; more patrols; more upkeep.
He urged the city to go slowly with whatever plan it decides upon.
Smith cautioned that the city will need to fund additional staff, the improvement of infrastructure, such as restrooms, and to maintain habitats.
City Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who is the council liaison to the Parks and Recreation Commission, likewise said that further discussion must also include the funding for infrastructure and staffing to ensure the quality of the environment is maintained. Considering the city's nearly $40 million budget shrinkage this year, that could be a difficult prospect, she said.
Dellenbach, the Palo Alto resident, summed up what many on the commission and expert panel seemed to agree on.
"I've heard a litany of mitigations that would need to be made to protect the wildlife and plants," she said.
"I think the 1,000-person-a-day (limit) should stay in place," she said. "It's vital. The wildlife and vegetation come first before human beings."
The City Council meeting will be held virtually on Zoom on Monday, Aug. 3, and can be viewed at Zoom.us (meeting ID 362 027 238) or by calling 669-900-6833. The Foothills Park item is scheduled to be discussed at around 7 p.m.
On Monday, Aug. 3, the Palo Alto City Council will discuss a pilot program for opening up access to Foothills Park to people who do not reside in Palo Alto. Here's what's been proposed.
• By purchasing a permit, nonresidents could enter Foothills Park. Up to 50 vehicles or bicycles with permits would be allowed per day.
• Permits would cost $6 each. Reservations would be made online.
• Residents would continue to have free access to the park.
• The city could adjust the quantity of permits sold per day in response to visitor numbers.
• The park's existing limit of 1,000 visitors at a time would continue.
• The pilot program would last for one year.
• Reservation of group spaces would be restricted to residents.
• The penalty for entering the park by the front gate would be downgraded to an infraction (from the current misdemeanor) for people who aren't residents, city employees or guests of residents or employees.
• The city's student field-trip policy would be formalized to include nonresident students.
The city would assess the quantitative and qualitative impacts to the park’s ecology, infrastructure and maintenance at the end of the pilot program.
Source: City of Palo Alto
Councilwoman Lydia Kou is surveying residents about Foothills Park access in advance of Monday's council meeting. To take the survey, go to tinyurl.com/KouFoothills. Also, a video of the panel discussion hosted by the Parks and Recreation Commission on July 28 will be posted at tinyurl.com/ParksAndRecPA or midpenmedia.org.