Foothills Park controversy back to Council yet-again on Tuesday: Why, oh, why? | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Foothills Park controversy back to Council yet-again on Tuesday: Why, oh, why?

Uploaded: Jun 21, 2020

((Update 2020-06-23: This has been removed from the current agenda on a motion by Councilmember Lydia Kou supported by Vice Mayor Tom DuBois (article).
It is likely to return after Council's July break. The stated reason was an overloaded agenda -- see my blog "Never let a crisis go to waste: Overloading the City Council agenda".))

How many times has opening up Foothills Park to non-residents gone to City Council? I've lost track. Tuesday will see yet-another attempt. The arguments of the advocates are essentially the same, as is the absence of meaningful answers to the questions and concerns raised by others. After seven weeks of Council meetings on the budget crisis, including special sessions and 10-11 hour meetings, why does this deserve yet another special session? Especially since the flaws and omissions in the proposal deem it unready for a decision.

Budget and management -- A case of "Ready, Fire, Aim"
The Staff Report identifies neither the size of the budget for this project or the source of the funding, asking Council to trust the City Manager to decide where to make more cuts to support this new program. Seven weeks of Council struggling over budget cuts and they are supposed to authorize the City Manager to do whatever he wants???

In the business world, the strength of the management team is a big part of the decision of whether to fund a project. Here, the logical person to manage the project -- the Supervising Ranger -- is a position that is currently vacant and frozen in the new budget.(foot#1)

No budget. No manager. What could possibly go wrong??
What better time to ignore budgeting fundamentals than during a budget crisis?

What is the PURPOSE of opening Foothills Park to non-residents?
The proposal comes from the City's Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC). In their report, I didn't see a clear statement of the purpose, without which there can't be metrics to determine success or failure. Instead, what is presented is reporting of the core of some of the comments made by residents during the PRC hearings.

One category of cited public comments were about being a "good neighbor" and "concern about 'elitism' and being 'being embarrassed' ".(foot#2) Some of the neighboring cities that would be given access are Los Altos Hills, Portola Valley, and Woodside. There is an apparent conflict here: Couldn't being a good neighbor to these cities increase the sense of "elitism"??
Obviously, we can't humiliate people by asking them to present last year's tax return to show that their income is low enough to qualify for increasing the economic diversity of the park's visitors.

Also from the comments was "desire for inclusiveness". (foot#2) The common interpretation of this is non-white racial and ethnic groups, often referred to as "people of color" (POC). While it is legitimate for amusement parks to have signs saying that you must be at least this tall to go on certain rides, we can't have a sign at the gate telling non-residents that their skin must be at least this dark to enter.(foot#3) Even if this wasn't illegal discrimination, it would be morally repugnant to me.

Question: Would a non-resident park visitor from the elite -- highly educated with a high income -- who is also a POC be regarded as fitting the apparent purpose of this proposed program?? For example, a partner at a major Venture Capital fund who is from India.

Calling it a "park" is part of the problem
Google Maps identifies ^Foothills Park^ as a "Nature preserve with trails". It is surrounded by other preserves.(foot#4) Yet many of the advocates for opening it to non-residents talk about it as if it is just another urban park, such as ^Rinconada Park^ or ^Mitchell Park^. All of ^Palo Alto's parks and open space preserves^ -- ^Pearson-Arastradero Preserve^ and ^Baylands Nature Preserve^, ^Esther Clark Preserve^ and some smaller spaces -- are open to the general public, with the lone exception of Foothills Park.
Aside: Palo Alto's park acreage is well below national guidelines for our population size.

What is the NEED for allowing more visitors
I have not gotten a satisfactory answer, not in the Staff Report, the Parks & Recreation Commission report, nor earlier discussions. With all those nearby open space preserves, why is there a need to include Foothills Park, and what would be its role? I have been told that much of those preserves are off-limits to protect fragile eco-systems. But doesn't Foothills Park have the same/similar eco-systems? The PRC report mentions that people at a hearing raised this concern(foot#5)

I have also been told that the crowds at several nearby preserves have ruined "the experience". The PRC report mentions people at a hearing being concerned about this, but no details, no analysis, no justification for what is being proposed.

Reports from various National Parks during the shutdown are that wildlife has been returning to areas that had had significant human activity. One of my joys of walking the trails in the Park is seeing deer bedded down a 100-feet away. Or hearing a covey (flock) of quail scuttling through under-brush and trying to spot them. Many years ago, I saw a video of a mountain lion bringing her cubs/kittens to feed night-after-night on a deer she had killed not that far from the Ranger Station.

The majority of those advocating for opening the Park to non-residents argue that it is morally "wrong" to exclude them. Why? "Because." What makes those individuals the infallible arbiters of morality for all of us? Or as they said when I was young: "Who died and made you Pope?" See "desire for inclusiveness" above.

A little financial analysis and questioning
The reports don't provide an estimated cost for additional visitors, beyond listing some areas of costs in footnote 2 in the PRC report. The proposal would allow up to 50 vehicles per day for non-residents, with an entry fee of $6, for a maximum revenue of $300/day. The PRC report states that current staffing costs $89K per year, which works out to $244/day.(foot#6)

The PRC report states that last year 3,700 "persons" -- the 5-year average is 2800 -- were turned away on weekends because they were non-residents. That is an average of 71 non-residents/weekend. Using an average of 2.7 people per vehicle (footnote 3 in the PRC report), that would have been 26 vehicles, with $158 in entry fees. If the count was mislabeled and should have been vehicles, the fees would have been an average of $427 per 2-day weekend.

What are the likely tasks needed to implement this program, and what will they cost. Nevermind. Without a defined purpose, this is unknowable.

Without a clearly stated purpose, how can meaningful metrics be established? And what are they going to cost? If you don't know what your metrics are, you don't know what data to collect, or the collection costs.

Assessment of Risks
The long-term weather/climate predictions I am hearing are that this area is entering another period of drought. If so, that will likely make the Park's eco-system even more fragile. Worse, more fire-prone. I don't see this having been addressed in the report.

In the section "Potential Risks" of the PRC report, it states "As noted previously, the principal risk is that additional visitation will negatively impact Foothills Park's natural resources and improvements, or otherwise tax park resources. This risk is viewed as a limited one in light of past experience with significantly higher visitation than is anticipated in connection with the pilot program and the effective controls on total visitation that are the core of this pilot."
I don't understand this. It seems to be saying that visitation by residents is expected to be lower so that even with additional non-resident visitors, the total will still be lower than before.

Assessing Success or Failure of the Pilot Program
Is the purpose of opening the Park to non-residents to open the Park to non-residents? If so, Council approval of the pilot program automatically makes it a success. I would hope that we have higher standards than that.

Is there a proposed deadline for deciding if the results of the pilot warrant implementing a follow-on? Are there waypoints to assess the status and whether modifications are needed or whether cancellation is warranted?

"Rules for thee, but not for me"
This proposal would seem to be a non-urgent, non-essential one, yet it is being accommodated in a special session of City Council. What influential interest got this special treatment, and why? What are they trying to put over on the residents?

"You're going to have to keep voting until you get it right"
That this controversial proposal keeps returning to Council combined with the timing of it being brought before a Council exhausted by the budget meetings suggests that its advocates hope to win by exhaustion, rather than on the merits.

The pilot program has
• no identified funding source,
• no non-trivial work plan,
• no identified management,
• no budget,
• no metrics to judge success or failure
• no deadlines
and yet Council is being asked to authorize the project!!

To me, this comes across as vacuous ^virtue signaling^ by some individuals at an undetermined cost to residents.

1. Budget and Management:
"Additional staff time will be required to implement the pilot program, which may result in reduced staff attention to other projects. Open Space staffing resources are further strained by the freeze of the vacant Foothills Park Supervising Ranger position, which is recommended as part of the FY 2021 Operating Budget, subject to City Council approval on June 22, 2020. Staff will redirect existing resources as needed to implement the pilot program while still maintaining Open Space services."
-- Staff Report, section "Resource Impact", pages 2-3, which are ^pages 54-55 of the PDF of the 154-page Council Packet^. Within the PDF, the "Packet Pg" numbering (lower right) is out-of-sync, but generally smaller by 2 than the PDF page number -- the covering two-page agenda was omitted from the count.

2. Public comments cited:
^Page 2 of the Parks & Recreation Commission Report, PDF page 57, Packet page # 55^,paragraph 4, lines 9-10.

3. Skin color for people-of-color (POC):
Additional problem for this non-starter:Caucasians (sometimes "people of pallor" or POP) with a significant tan can be darker than is common among some ethnic groups commonly classified as POCs.

4. Preserves surrounding Foothills Park:
• Pearson-Arastradero Preserve: directly abutting
• Foothills Preserve (Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space): directly abutting
• Windy Hill Open Space Preserve (OSP) - 1.2 miles as the crow flies
• Russian Ridge Preserve
• Coal Creek Preserve
• Los Trancos OSP
• Black Mountain
• Rancho San Antonio Preserve
• Skyline Ridge Preserve
• Monte Bello Preserve

5. Fragile eco-systems, damage from overuse:
"The comments from persons speaking against expanding access expressed a general concern about overuse of the Park and potential impacts to the Park’s ecology, and changes to the existing Park experience, ..."
-- ^Page 2 of the Parks & Recreation Commission Report, PDF page 57, Packet page # 55^,paragraph 4, lines 5-7.

6. Staffing costs: ^Page 2 of the Parks & Recreation Commission Report, PDF page 57, Packet page # 55^,paragraph 3, next-to-last line.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

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