Foothills Park: Still (mostly) just for Palo Altans

Residency requirement still strikes some as elitist, but outsiders can now trek through the preserve

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.

"She asked me if I lived in Palo Alto, and I said 'Yes' because I didn't know that there was such a difference between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto. Then she asked for my address," Williams said.

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."


Posted by Joseph, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 30, 2013 at 11:14 am

This park belongs to Palo Alto. It was paid for with Palo Alto's taxpayer dollars, and is maintained by Palo Altans.

Yes, Williams may have been turned away feeling sad, but that does not mean that our parks need to be opened to the greater public. If anything, it serves to show how many additional visitors would be in the park on any nice Northern California weekend.

Hikers can access the park through the trail and no one has a problem with that. No need to feel guilty for owning such a lovely piece of property.

Posted by Palo Alto Resident, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 11:57 am

With the many other parks in the City of Palo Alto open to the public, I appreciate having a park that is nicely maintained, pristine and reserved for residents of the Palo Alto community.

Posted by palo alto parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 30, 2013 at 12:02 pm

What about opening the park to non-residents on bikes and on foot only? There isn't anywhere to park nearby, it would still limit the number of visitors, which is good. Anyone visiting Rinconada or Pardee parks at the end of the weekend, both heavily used for parties and picnics, would appreciate why we need to limit such rural space.

Posted by palo alto parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 30, 2013 at 12:02 pm

What about opening the park to non-residents on bikes and on foot only? There isn't anywhere to park nearby, it would still limit the number of visitors, which is good. Anyone visiting Rinconada or Pardee parks at the end of the weekend, both heavily used for parties and picnics, would appreciate why we need to limit such rural space.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 30, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Foothills Park should be maintained under the current basis, which has been successful.
I would also like to add that I oppose Liz Kniss' unhelpful views as stated in this article. This is a special natural environment and plenty of our other city parks are overrun at times with people from other cities.
City Council members, we count on you to protect Palo Alto nature and represent the best interests of Palo Alto citizens. Thank you to the ones that strive to do that.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 30, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I'd love to know how many Shallow Altans use the parks in other cities. Given what I know about the habits of my friends there, I'd say they visit other area's parks regularly. Perhaps they should be banned from other cities/counties parks, unless they can cease their ongoing commentary about non-residents visiting PA parks. But who cares about Foothills Park? Leave it to 'em so the residents get to feel special. Maybe it'll even further preservation of more than their collective smugness. But hey - how about returning to EPA baylands stolen years ago?

Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 30, 2013 at 12:48 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Bikes do get into Foothill particularly before 9.30 ish a weekends before the Rangers man the gates.

There is nowhere that I know for securing a bike and there is not enough car parking space for 1,000 visitors if we assume that means 500 cars.

Bikes must not be allowed on the hiking trails. Mountain bikes and hikers do not work well on the same trails. Mountain bikes are very likely to damage a hiking trail by their very nature. If mountain bikes are allowed, then there must be special mountain bike trails built and kept separate from hiking trails.

It is easy for anyone to get into Foothill if they arrive before the Rangers arrive.

Posted by Former Parks Comm, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 1:12 pm

I served on the Parks and Rec Commission for 6 years. This subject was revisited several times. The fact remains that in order to buy the land, Palo Alto floated a Bond. In the language of that Bond, it promised that the land would be reserved only to Palo Alto residents who were the only people to pay on the Bonds. The language in the Bond formed a contract with Palo Altans. That contract should not be breached now just because other communities want access to the land. I think that if the Bond contract were breached, it would trigger a lawsuit on behalf of all Palo Altans for the return of their money. And that would be a hefty bill. The question of access comes down to the fact that a promise was made to the residents that if they agreed to put up the money to buy the land, it would be reserved for them.
That is a promise that should be kept by the City Council or the next time the City tries to float a bond, there will be no credibility in the representations made. The residents will lose faith in their elected officials to keep their promises.

Posted by Greenwich West, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 30, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Liz Kniss, thanks for continuing to represent the values that characterize north Palo Alto: entitlement, privilege, selfishness, NIMBYism, xenophobia, and arrogance. Thanks weekly for endorsing this kind of candidate. She's better than Tim Grey why?

Posted by Pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Up to 30 non residents per day, in parties of 5 or less, families only. And charge $15.
And no groupe activities like birthday partys.

You wont see too many people from out of town coming with those restrictions in place

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 30, 2013 at 1:56 pm

[Portion removed.]

Honestly, I don't care that the park is only for PA residents - it does seem a way to keep it more intact. But the attitude about non-residents using the other parks - where did this attitude come from? It didn't previously exist amongst so many. Parks were used by people depending on many factors & being a resident wasn't one of them.

A group of my PA friends are having a picnic today in a Menlo Park park - should I call the police?

Posted by Eric, a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 30, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Palo Altans, I assume you're OK with staying out of Shoreline Park. We paid for that....

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I have been there few times with relatives that live in Palo Alto. I don't see anything wrong with having a park for residents ONLY. Palo Alto voted and paid for the bonds.

Posted by bob, a resident of Woodside
on Jun 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm

It appears the 2nd most educated town in America flunked kindergarten.

Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 30, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Paul Losch is a registered user.

I recall when I was interviewed by City Council members for my second of 3 terms on the Parks and Recreation Commission, and then Council Member LaDoris Cordell asked me point blank if I was of the opinion that Foothills should be confined to Palo Alto residents only, or made available to residents from other places.

I don't recall my specific response, but it was a "waffle."

I did give it some thought afterwards, and came to believe that with an appropriate fee structure, people who do not live in Palo Alto can be welcomed at Foothills Park.

No change in quotas, limits on how many people in total can be there at a given day, all other restrictions remain in place. Out of towners pay a fee to enjoy the park, and like anyone who goes there, is fined for abusing the privilege of using it.

It is a great place, and responsible people from anywhere should be welcomed, and be asked to cover the expense of their visit with a fee.

Posted by PA Native, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 30, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Our city parks and Rinconada pool are taken over by non-residents who use the picnic tables and pool. I think Rinconada pool should be for Palo Alto residents only.

I am glad that no residents of other towns can take over Foothills Park because if we open up the park to other towns, they will take over the park too. I know it's not PC to say this, but everyone is thinking it.

Posted by Nativist or nativitist?, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 4:26 pm

No everyone is not thinking that. [Portion removed.]

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 30, 2013 at 4:27 pm

PA native-- how do you know that the people that use our parks are non residents? Do you go around asking for ID. The pool at rinconada is not free- in fact non residents pay more. So what is the problem?
But I guess it is okay for PA residents to take over the dish area?

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 30, 2013 at 4:54 pm

PA Native's attitude is EXACTLY my point in my sharp comments. Is PA so special that they're the only ones w/non-residents using facilities? Has PA Native bothered to find out how much $$ non-residents add to the coffers w/higher fees they pay for some amenities? That non-residents pay higher fees in other communities for amenities, too? It's a common practice all over, as it should be. Sounds to me like PA Native doesn't know much about their own amenities, much less really knows where all these people live! Oooooh, maybe these aren't white or Asian people, so they don't "look" like a PA resident! Does PA Resident also profile the non-English speakers to help determine if they're acceptable park visitors? After all, my PA resident friends who loved their time at Burgess Park in Menlo all have *accents* but at least they're white.

What about if someone spends, say...$50 on food at PA deli, then heads to one of your parks for a picnic - is that acceptable? What about if the non-residents only work in your fair city, but don't live there? Are they allowed to sit on a bench outside while munching their $15 burger, or must they spend $20 minimum before they're allowed to sit & eat? What about the soccer game attendees yesterday - what if they meditated or did yoga in the park before they went to Stanford, after driving from Tracy for the game?

What about when the POTUS was running for office & was at Rinconada - he wasn't a resident. Did people get upset about that?

[Portion removed.]

Posted by isez, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 30, 2013 at 8:28 pm

isez is a registered user.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Alphonso, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jun 30, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Alphonso is a registered user.

How many other communities restrict the usage of their parks? - I can't think of any. Many nearby communites have floated bonds to pay for parks open to all. PA should charge for non resident entry - otherwise PA does appear to be selfish.

Posted by rick, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2013 at 10:49 pm

rick is a registered user.

Does there really exist any 24-year-old resident of East Palo Alto who thinks there's no difference between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto? Or is this a case of journalistic license?

Posted by paly alum, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm

paly alum is a registered user.

Ha, I agree with Rick. East Palo Altans and Palo Altans probably know there is a difference. However, there ARE people who don't live in either city who think that there is a West Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and think it's the same city! Back in the 70s, EPA voted to change the name to Nairobi but then it all fell through because it was a nightmare for the postal service to change (or some other excuse, can't remember). Palo Alto does share the zip code of 94303 with East Palo Alto.

Posted by rick, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2013 at 11:31 pm

rick is a registered user.

Must admit I often mistakenly think South Palo Alto is the same city as North Palo Alto.

Posted by paly alum, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2013 at 12:29 am

paly alum is a registered user.

@rick: Ha! Another good one!

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 1, 2013 at 1:23 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

Paly alum - I meet people new to the area who fairly often don't understand that they're 2 different towns & a good number of them have been newcomers to PA. I'm betting that if it was reported accurately, the young woman is a recent resident of EPA.

FWIW, there's a neighborhood in Menlo called West Menlo that some folks think is a separate town & others make much of the unincorporated areas of Menlo Park - & given that's how we refer to them, it is confusing.

Posted by wmartin46, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 1, 2013 at 9:25 am

wmartin46 is a registered user.

> In May 1959, the council put the decision of
> whether or not to purchase the park to a citywide vote

Maybe we should consider putting this question to the voters every 25 years, or so?

> 1,400 acres

At current market rates (in the "flats") this 1,400 acres is worth $7B.

At the current 1,000 people capacity, this allocates 1.4 acres to each person.

At 142K, the daily average attendance would be about 350 people per day.

At 200K, the daily average attendance would be about 550 people per day.

Assuming three people per car (average), this comes to 150 to 180-odd vehicles per day.

> 1,300+ Palo Altans turned away

That comes to about 4 people a day, or 1-2 vehicles a day, on average.

> but due to budget cuts, the front gate is only staffed on weekends.

So, if there aren't any rangers at the front gate during the week, how can the City provide any accurate visitor counts?

> use fees

If the City were to charge $5.00 per person, that would generate $1M a year. As noted in the article, the current $2/car does little to offset the park's operational costs.

Given the large number of parks/open space, and other community services, available to the general public in Palo Alto, it's difficult to understand why this issue of Foothills Park being restricted to Palo Altans is such an issue. Foothills is nice, but it's no nicer than any of the other parks in the area.

This issue bubbles up every time we get a change of Council members. It's really not an issue worth all the public angst.

Posted by Toad22222, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 1, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Toad22222 is a registered user.

I like having the park and restricting it to only some people. Other cities should make their own parks for their own residents, too.

Posted by Toad22222, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Toad22222 is a registered user.

The Los Altos (Santa Clara County) library closed it to Palo Altans. (or pay $80, very expensive)

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2013 at 7:07 pm

village fool is a registered user.

May I suggest solution for two problems (for less than the price of one)? - have the homeless parks their cars/RV during the night in Foofhills park (Web Link). This suggestion can be refined, even - the homeless can man the park rangers entrance station during the week - work to pay for parking/water/use of restrooms...
@editor - would it make sense to place both threads under the same category? (this is under - Palo Alto issues, Homeless - around town).

Posted by Hulkamania, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 2, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Hulkamania is a registered user.

Eric, a resident of Mountain View asks, "Palo Altans, I assume you're OK with staying out of Shoreline Park. We paid for that...."

I'm okay with it Eric. The stench of methane gas rising from the garbage under the park is overwhelming. Has the lawn area in the amphitheater caught fire lately?

Posted by paly alum, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm

paly alum is a registered user.

Village fool, you can't be serious. It would turn into a huge homeless people's park and Palo Altans would no longer want to visit.

@Hulkamania: Very funny!

Posted by rick, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2013 at 2:59 am

rick is a registered user.

We'll overlook the fact that methane gas is completely odorless.

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