For 42 years, Palo Altans have had to share 1,400 acres of chaparral-covered hills known as Foothills Park only with coyotes, jackrabbits, lizards and other critters.
But if Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto and her Los Altos Hills colleagues are able to craft a deal lucrative enough for the rest of the Palo Alto City Council to stomach, Los Altos Hills residents may gain access to the park -- for a fee.
An annual payment between $50,000 and $100,000 is the figure currently being floated, although the deal is far from final and already faces stiff opposition.
It is strongly opposed by council members Jack Morton and LaDoris Cordell. Council members Dena Mossar and Judy Kleinberg have pointed out the negotiations alone could take years.
Councilman John Barton said his first inclination is to oppose it, although he is willing to consider a proposal.
"It's so quiet and nice and underused in a good sense of the word," Barton said. "I'd hate to lose that."
And council members Bern Beecham, Peter Drekmeier and Vice Mayor Larry Klein said their decisions would depend on the details of the deal.
"It's a very major community discussion. … It's not casual," Mossar said, adding it might not be resolved for decades.
Kishimoto said she came up with the idea as a way to keep the foothills fire station open all summer. Except for this week, when it will be staffed every day, Station 8 will only be staffed with three firefighters on 10 to 30 "high risk" fire days this summer. Keeping it open all summer would cost $140,000 more than is currently budgeted.
"We've been wracking our brains trying to figure out how we could make (Fire Station 8 staffing) work. It goes back to the overall city dilemma of rising costs," Kishimoto said. "Either we have to reduce services or deliver them more efficiently or increase revenue."
So despite her past opposition to opening the park, on Monday morning Kishimoto called Los Altos Hills Councilman Breene Kerr.
Perhaps the town's money could be used to staff the station, satisfying residents and preserving the city's budget, she suggested as a conceptual idea.
Kerr, who lives on Page Mill Road just below Foothills Park, is a member of that city's recreation subcommittee. He said he had been planning to contact Palo Alto because the committee had been discussing its desire to gain access to the park.
Their discussion, which Kishimoto relayed to the Palo Alto City Council Monday night, led Kerr to request a special meeting of the five-member Los Altos Hills City Council to discuss the possible deal.
The meeting will be held Thursday at 6:15 p.m., as the Weekly is going to press. It will be reported on Palo Alto Online.
Los Altos Hills, with 8,000 residents, has a budget surplus and its residents are yearning for more recreational opportunities, Kerr said.
"I don't think Palo Alto residents would even notice a few of our residents showing up," Kerr said.
Mayor Dean Warshawsky said Wednesday he also supported working with Palo Alto to "cobble out a solution that works for both sides."
Los Altos Hills also has an interest in having firefighters at Station 8, both said.
Until 2006, Los Altos Hills contributed money to the staffing of Station 8, last year paying about $50,000.
Even without the funding this year, a portion of Los Altos Hills is covered by an "automatic aid" agreement, Fire Chief Nick Marinaro said. Palo Alto crews respond to any calls within that area, a deal that works well for both parties, Marinaro said, noting the city has aid agreements that bridge the boundaries with most of its neighbors.
In the past, Kishimoto said she has opposed opening Foothills Park to non-residents because of the "fragility of the ecosystem."
Los Altos Hills has a unique link the park, however, she said.
"Foothills Park is basically almost in Los Altos Hills," Kishimoto said.
The historic objection to allowing others in is that Los Altos Hills and other neighboring cities said no when asked in the late 1950s to pitch in to purchase the park from the late Dr. Russel V.A. Lee and his wife, Dorothy.
But Los Altos Hills may now be willing to pay, Kishimoto said. And it isn't a huge metropolis.
She acknowledged the issue is very controversial in Palo Alto and may not be resolved quickly.
Kerr called the park's purchase "ancient history."
"I'm interested in what we could accomplish now. It appears we have some common interests in providing enhanced fire protection along Page Mill Road," Kerr said.
Foothills Park's founding is still fresh in the memories of some Palo Altans and Kishimoto may be the sole Palo Alto council member willing to link Fire Station 8's staffing dilemmas with the exclusivity of Foothills Park.
"It's just to my mind idiotic," Morton said.
"It's certainly fiscally irresponsible," he said adding that Palo Alto has paid for the park for 40-plus years. "It's a crazy idea that somehow for $50,000 we would give away a priceless item."
"It's already a sensitive area. We Palo Altans consider it a nature preserve."
Foothills Park costs a little more than $1 million a year to operate, according to Community Services Director Richard James. It was purchased in the late 1950s for about $1.3 million.
Cordell was equally inflamed about the proposal, although for a different reason.
"It strikes me as being elitist," Cordell said. "It's sending a message that you can get access to open space if you have enough money to get in."
"It just turned me off completely to hear some receptivity (on the council). Oh no, no, no. I don't want to go down that road," Cordell said, adding the proposed deal with Los Altos Hill would "tarnish our city's reputation."
Cordell said she strongly supports opening Foothills Park to everyone and she tried to win the rest of the council over in 2005.
That effort failed, with then-council members Vic Ojakian, Morton, Jim Burch, Beecham and Kishimoto voting to continue excluding non-residents. Then-council members Kleinberg, Mossar, Cordell and Hillary Freeman voted to consider opening the park to non-residents.
If Foothills Park is opened to Los Altos Hills residents, it opens the question of which other cities would be allowed access, several council members noted Wednesday.
Kishimoto admitted that was a tough issue.
"If other cities want to help pay for at least the maintenance of the park and potentially some kind of financial contribution and we can have a system that keeps the park pristine because it is a rare resource. ... I wouldn't say I'm totally opposed to some limited discussion," Kishimoto said.
Klein said he didn't think many communities would want to pay for access -- "But you never know," he added.
Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Paul Losch called Foothills Park "a sensitive area that shouldn't be excessively patronized."
That doesn't necessary mean the park should be open only to Palo Altans, he said.
Drekmeier said he thought a fee should be charged at the gate.
Foothills Park had 130,000 visitors in 2006 and only 1,000 visitors are allowed per day, a limit that is broached only on Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends and on Christmas Day, James said.
On weekdays, few people visit the park, he said. Rangers only conduct "spot checks" of visitors within the park. If someone is not a Palo Alto resident, they are asked to leave but there is no penalty, he said.
On weekends, when the park is busy, visitors in vehicles must prove they are Palo Alto residents before entering the park.
Each resident is allowed 15 non-resident guests in two vehicles.
In 2005, in order to have access to grant money, the City Council voted to open the park to non-residents who are hiking through.
James said the park is in overall good shape, although it has many non-native plants.
Due to volunteer efforts, "we're not beating (the invasives), but we're keeping up with it," he said.
Opening Foothills Park to non-residents would not need to go on the ballot, City Attorney Gary Baum said via an attorney's office staff member.