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Foothills Park will remain closed

Council fears 'another community war' if issue is explored

Palo Alto will continue prohibiting nonresidents from driving alone into Foothills Park, the City Council decided Monday night.

The council voted 5-4 to not refer the controversial issue to the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, as some council members and commissioners had requested. Council members Vic Ojakian, Jack Morton, Jim Burch, Bern Beecham and Yoriko Kishimoto voted against the referral.

As a result, the city will continue to prevent nonresidents from entering the 1,400-acre nature preserve unless they are accompanied by a resident or hike into it from another preserve.

If the council reversed the ban, Ojakian guessed, displeased residents would place it on the ballot through a referendum. Such an election could cost the city $200,000 to $300,000, City Clerk Donna Rogers noted.

Holding the discussion, Morton predicted, would start "another community war."

Two parks commissioners had asked for the referral last week during a joint meeting with the council. One of them, Judith Steiner, said the ban "smacks of racism" and adds to the perception Palo Alto is "elitist."

Most of the 17 members of the public who spoke favored keeping the ban. Many said the restriction protects Foothills Park's fragile ecosystem.

Keeping the park closed "is not an issue of political correctness," Morton said. Opening it up, he added, is "a prescription for environmental degradation."

Three council members -- Dena Mossar, Judy Kleinberg and LaDoris Cordell -- asked for the discussion through a memo. Councilwoman Hillary Freeman voted with them. She argued against the general idea of opening the park up to nonresidents, but said she approving of having the discussion.

Entry to Foothills Park has been restricted since it first opened in 1965. The reason historically given for keeping the park closed to nonresidents was that other cities had refused Palo Alto's offer to help pay for the park, which cost the city $1.29 million.

Resident Mary Carlstead, who spoke at Monday night's meeting, sounded alarmed the city would even considering breaking that "covenant" with residents.

"Yes, it is true we bought it, but we did not create it," Cordell said Monday night. "I cannot fathom anyone here believing that the maker of this park made it just for Palo Altans. .... It is difficult for me to imagine one single reason for not discussing this issue unless there is something dangerous about simply talking about this subject."

Keeping the park exclusively for Palo Altans and their guests would hurt the city's chances for getting grants to preserve its nature preserves, Mossar said.

"There is very strong discontent with this city for having made this choice and maintaining this choice," she said.

A few residents who opposed the change told the Weekly that issue would affect whom they would vote for in this fall's council race.

The 10 candidates for council are evenly split on the issue. Candidates Larry Klein, John Barton, Victor Frost Kishimoto and Morton favor keeping Foothills Park closed to nonresidents. Candidates Danielle Martell, Peter Drekmeier, Karen Holman, Norman Carroll and Harold "Skip" Justman favor opening the park, although most had caveats.

"Closing Foothills Park is nothing less than bigotry," Martell said Monday night.

— Bill D'Agostino

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