Lawsuit threatened to open Foothills Park

Publication Date: Friday Mar 3, 2000

PALO ALTO: Lawsuit threatened to open Foothills Park

Former councilman blasts 'residents-only' policy as elitist

by Marcella Bernhard

Former Palo Alto City Councilman Ron Andersen, who led an unsuccessful crusade to open Foothills Park to nonresidents while on the council, said this week he will sue the city to change what he called an "immoral, elitist and illegal" policy.

The 1,400-acre park, which among Palo Alto parks is second in size only to the Baylands, has been restricted to Palo Alto residents and their guests since it opened in 1965.

In the early 1990s, Andersen's attempts to open the park to other local residents on special "Neighbor's Days" or to a limited number of people who work in Palo Alto garnered some council support. Palo Alto residents, however, were vehemently opposed to opening the park, and the council quickly backed away from Andersen's proposals.

Andersen, who left the council in 1998, said he is hiring a lawyer to pursue his case against the city. He said a local law school is interested in taking on the case, but he declined to identify the school until an agreement is formalized.

If he can generate interest among residents of neighboring cities, Andersen said he would like to pursue a class-action lawsuit against the city of Palo Alto. If not, Andersen said, he will pursue the lawsuit alone.

Formerly a teacher in the Palo Alto school district, Andersen recently moved to Calistoga. He said he is now barred from visiting the park even though he still owns a home in Palo Alto.

"Now I'm not a resident, and I'm excluded," Andersen said.

In a strange twist, Mayor Liz Kniss--who strongly opposed opening the park to nonresidents in 1991--may have unwittingly reopened the Foothills Park debate. Near the end of her State of the City address Monday night--which focused on regional cooperation among Palo Alto, neighboring cities and Stanford University--Kniss suggested "we talk again" about opening Foothills Park to Stanford students and resident faculty.

On Wednesday, Kniss said the idea was meant as an example of the creative thinking and cooperation she emphasized in her speech, not a call to action.

"It happened to come into my mind," Kniss said.

When a reporter called Andersen for a response to Kniss' comment, Andersen revealed that he has been planning to pursue the lawsuit for the past few months.

Now, Kniss says she thinks the council should look at the Foothills Park restrictions again. If a fellow council member or members will support her, Kniss said, she would consider asking City Attorney Ariel Calonne to review the policy.

However, Kniss added that she does not "see an enormous urgency to this issue," though she hopes it can be resolved outside the courtroom.

In a 1991 report, Calonne said the city's exclusion of nonresidents was legal. The City Council traditionally has justified the residents-only restriction on environmental grounds, saying the park must be protected from overuse. In 1991, the council added a rule that no more than 1,000 people may visit the park per day.

According to Greg Betts, the city's superintendent of open space and sciences, the park never approaches the daily limit. Foothills Park had 5,700 visitors during the entire month of August, which is the park's busiest season. In the slower months of March and April, the park has fewer than 1,000 visitors per month, Betts said.

Betts hopes the city will keep the residents-only restriction, however, if only because of staffing concerns. The city has just seven rangers to watch more than 5,000 acres of park land and open space. Two rangers monitor and maintain Foothills' 15 miles of hiking trails, seven picnic areas and nature center, Betts said.

"In my view, (the city's policy) is pretty liberal," he said, noting that one Palo Alto resident can bring up to 15 guests to the park.

Furthermore, Betts said there doesn't seem to be much demand for Foothills Park from nonresidents, who are welcome at more than 30 other parks and nature preserves in Palo Alto. Of the more than 32,000 people who went to Foothills Park last year, just 394 were nonresidents who were turned away, Betts said. However, there is no way to determine how many nonresidents avoid Foothills Park because they are aware of its residents-only rule.

Behind the environmental arguments for restricting Foothills Park to Palo Altans may be some degree of spite toward the neighboring cities of Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills and Los Altos. The city of Palo Alto asked those cities to help purchase the land for Foothills Park in 1958 and offered to create a regional nature preserve. The other cities declined, and Palo Alto residents ended up footing the $1.29 million bill to buy the property.

Before the park opened, a committee of citizens persuaded the council to designate it as open to residents only.

Since then, many residents have said the policy is justified because their tax dollars go toward the park's upkeep. It costs the city $800,000 per year to maintain Foothills Park, which comes from the city's general fund, Betts said.

But since property and sales taxes also are funneled into the general fund, anyone who shops or dines, does business or owns property in Palo Alto also contributes, at least in a small way, to the park's upkeep.

Andersen said Palo Alto is the only city in the nation that bars nonresidents from a public facility.

"I don't know any other city in the nation that restricts a public, tax-supported facility in this manner," Andersen said.

He added that in his opinion, Palo Alto's Foothills Park policy is a discriminatory rule designed to exclude low-income people from neighboring cities.

During the summer months, Palo Alto's city parks often swell with visitors from outside the city. Andersen said many of these people live in less wealthy communities near Palo Alto that don't have enough parks to support their residents.

Kniss' idea to open the park to Stanford residents, Andersen said, would just make this discrimination more blatant.

"You can't open that door just a little bit," Andersen said. "What kind of message is that, to open it to Stanford students and not to people who live in East Palo Alto?"

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