On a warm Sunday morning early last fall, 24-year-old Katie Williams rode her bike from her East Palo Alto home up Page Mill Road to the entrance of Palo Alto's Foothills Park. After reaching the park's entrance, Williams was stopped by a park ranger at the gate.
Locals who are familiar with the history and policies of Foothills Park probably know what happened next. Upon giving her address to the ranger, Williams was told that she, a non-Palo Alto resident, could not enter the park.
This month, the pristine nature preserve observed its 48th anniversary since its founding on June 19, 1965. In that time, little has changed.
Families continue to picnic in the Orchard Glen meadow. Coyote and deer still roam among the oaks and chaparral. School children arrive on field trips and learn about local habitats. And the park's residency requirement, which allows only Palo Alto residents and their guests to enter and has spurred waxing and waning debate for nearly five decades, is still enforced.
Just about the only change in recent history, though a significant one, has been the addition of a trail through the park that allows anybody to access the nature preserve from a back entrance.
Foothills Park, up in the hills overlooking the city, is 1,400 acres bounded by Palo Alto's Pearson-Arastradero Preserve, Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills. The park's 90 developed acres have facilities that include the man-made Boronda Lake, single-track trails, campgrounds and other recreational facilities.
The residency requirement, which also allows former and present city employees to enter, makes it one of the only parks in the nation to have such a restriction.
In addition, its rules stipulate that there can only be 1,000 visitors in the park at any one time. Palo Altans and city officials assert that the visitor limit helps protect the environment and perpetuates a calm atmosphere.
According to figures provided by the Palo Alto Open Space, Parks and Golf Administration, the park's initial yearly attendance, estimated at 370,000 visitors, steadily declined for 30 years, dipping to 78,723 in 1990.
However, attendance is once again on the rise. From 2001 to 2010, the average yearly visits numbered 142,645 with attendance in 2011 and 2012 at around 200,000.
An average of 1,344 residents were turned away from the front gate each year from 2001-12.
Greg Betts, director of Palo Alto's Community Services Department, said that the controversy surrounding Foothills Park preceded its opening.
"There are still people in the community that still remember very clearly the issue in 1959 and the decision of whether or not to purchase the park," Betts said.
One year earlier, in 1958, Russel V. Lee, a medical doctor and one of the founders of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, had proposed that Palo Alto purchase 1,294 acres of his ranch at $1,000 an acre for the purpose of preserving the land for open space. (Palo Alto acquired more acreage at a later date, bringing the total to 1,400.)
The cost, $1.3 million (today equivalent to approximately $10.1 million), seemed a bit much for some Palo Altans to stomach, even though Lee's offer was generous, as the land's estimated valuation per acre at the time was much more, Betts said.
Still, "Some members of the public felt that the City Council members didn't have the authority to encumber that kind of expense," he said.
In May 1959, the council put the decision of whether or not to purchase the park to a citywide vote, and of the 10,539 Palo Altans who voted on the issue, 62 percent supported purchasing the land.
The initiative did not include whether or not access to the park should be limited to residents, a rule added by the council after it asked Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills to share the purchase. When the two cities refused, Palo Alto decided to limit park use to its residents, Betts said.
The issue of the park's residency requirement was not decided once and for all -- at least, not for some people. It has been put to council vote in 1973, 1990 and 2005, each time inviting impassioned responses from citizens and council members alike, and each time being voted down by the council.
"Basically (the requirement) is to help ensure that residents are given a priority since there is this 1,000 visitor limit," Betts said.
Lester Hendrie, supervising ranger for Palo Alto Open Space, said that on a typical weekday the park is quiet, due in part to its restriction against bikes (on trails), dogs (on weekends and city holidays) and horses, though that calm is not always the case.
"The picnic areas here can be just about full on busy weekends or holidays just by residents alone, so if you were to open up and triple the amount of visitation for example, we would not have enough facilities. Citizens who are used to having this preserve and being able to come up here and get a picnic table would all of a sudden not be able to get a picnic table," he said.
Over the years, many Palo Altans have supported Foothills Park's restrictions. In a 1997 letter to the Palo Alto Weekly, one resident wrote: "Foothills Park does not have the capacity to accommodate large crowds. Its pristine and peaceful nature is due to the small number of people who use it. ... If there is truly a regard for nature, Foothills Park should remain limited for its own protection."
However, Palo Altans and others have called Foothill Park's residency requirement "elitist," including former councilman Ron Andersen. In 1990, he tried to convince the city to open up the park.
"Is it elitist not to allow everyone in your living room?" Palo Alto Councilwoman Liz Kniss asked rhetorically in a recent interview. At the time, she had argued that more visitors would bring added environmental and financial costs.
Over the years, Kniss has revisited the residency requirement and expressed an interest in opening up the park to Stanford University students and faculty, but only in exchange for something valuable, she said.
"Way back in the 1960s when (purchase of the park) was negotiated, it was like the Little Red Hen, and the Little Red Hen ended up having to do it all by herself. No one else ever wanted to buy in, but years later everyone has been very unhappy because they can't use it," she said.
Hesitant to speculate on how today's council would vote on the residency requirement, Kniss said she would be willing to entertain the idea of an exchange with interested parties.
Other local agencies have asked for access to the park in the past -- including a 2007 bid of $135,000 from Los Altos Hills. But Palo Alto declined because the money would not have been enough to justify added park-maintenance costs, Hendrie said.
Los Altos Hills Mayor Gary Waldeck said, "Many of our residents would love to participate, and the truth is we'd love to find a way to make that happen somehow. I don't know that we'd be able to pay anything. It's certainly not in the budget at this time."
Waldeck said he has passed by the entrance to Foothills Park many times, but he has never visited.
"I can see the front end of it is just gorgeous," he said.
Ultimately, Waldeck does not begrudge Palo Alto its decision not to open up the park to nonresidents.
"They can do what they want -- it's their property," he said.
Of the $2 million budgeted to care for Palo Alto's 4,000 acres of open space, Hendrie estimated that $800,000 goes towards Foothills Park, with $150,000 of that for water alone.
He said that the budget has to cover all park expenses, including the rangers' salaries, and that if Foothills Park were opened up to nonresidents tomorrow, the increased use would take a toll on the park's facilities.
He also said that that even though the park allows a maximum of 1,000 visitors, it's undesirable on a regular basis.
"Having that many people at any one time all the time would be a huge change to the atmosphere of the park, the peace and solitude. I know that's what a lot of people like when they come to the park; they don't want it to be really crowded."
In his 26 years at Foothills Park, Hendrie has noticed little change environmentally, which he attributes to controlled attendance, and he can only remember having to close the park a couple of times because attendance had reached maximum capacity.
Hendrie spoke about the difference between Foothills Park and other local preserves and the reason why Palo Alto wishes to keep the use of its park limited. Parks like Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve and the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve are experiencing overcrowding and heavy use, he said.
He pointed to Yosemite National Park as an extreme example of how crowding can affect a park's atmosphere.
"I see the challenges they face, where it's a city on the weekends and during the summer. There's so much impact. I'm hoping that never happens here -- that however usage of the park changes, that it will stay preserved and protected, so that it doesn't suffer from the impacts of too much use."
It's a problem that sometimes weighs on nature-lover Hendrie, who obviously sees the value in people being outside and enjoying nature. He views Foothills Park as a place of education but also knows that over-use of any preserve or park means more maintenance and a threat to the environment, he said.
"I've got mixed feelings about it, but it does help protect the resources and the facilities, so knowing that we could not maintain what we have if we were suddenly to increase the amount of use helps me sleep at night," he said.
As for finding new sources of funding, Palo Alto has experimented with charging an admission fee, most recently $2 a car from 1988 to about the mid-'90s, Hendrie said. Even though people did not seem to have a problem paying the fee, the revenue did little to offset the park's maintenance and restoration projects.
"We've proposed charging entrance fees, even entrance fees for all of open space -- Arastradero and Baylands -- and they've been shot down by the council or (council's) Finance Committee each time" because of the expenses involved with enforcing fee payment, he said.
Costs aside, there is now one way around the park's residency restriction -- the most significant change to the park since it opened. In 2005, the California Coastal Conservancy and Santa Clara County offered Palo Alto $1 million each to help Palo Alto acquire 13 acres of private land from the Midpeninsula Open Space Trust to complete the Arastradero Preserve.
In exchange, Palo Alto agreed to open up a trail through Foothills Park to all visitors, regardless of residency, which connects part of the Bay To Ridge trail that runs from the San Francisco Bay to the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve.
Hendrie said that the park rangers have no way to know how many people walk the 2.5 miles through the Arastradero preserve to enter Foothills Park, but there have not been any noticeable effects of the increased foot traffic.
Kniss cited this back entrance as a way the park is accessible to all.
"I think I'd argue that it's really not a closed park. It's got limited use because you have to hike in. ... So it's kind of like a little pristine piece of property that has been kept sort of like some monument, that's been kept in great shape because it's only open once in a while," she said.
Even access through the front gate is a little easier than it used to be. According to Hendrie, the city used to keep rangers at the front gate year-round, but due to budget cuts, the front gate is only staffed on weekends.
Although the park ranger on duty that warm autumn day did not tell Williams that she could access Foothills Park through the Arastradero Preserve, she did take pity on Williams, who had biked all the way up hilly Page Mill. The ranger kindly told Williams that she would make an exception for her once, letting her into the park, but added that Williams couldn't come back.
After Williams entered, she found Boronda Lake. She recalled feeling amazed that the park was empty on a Sunday. She said she sat there for at least two hours before families started showing up around 1 p.m.
"It seemed to me that it was being almost underutilized. And if there's more people that want to take advantage and use it, it's kind of a shame that people can't."
When Williams left that day, she was forlorn.
"I biked away feeling sad that I wouldn't be able to come back and enjoy that really lovely place."
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