With its winding trails, scenic vistas and family-friendly camping sites, the sprawling Foothills Park is frequently described as a nature-lover's paradise.
But the 1,400-acre preserve also includes one feature that is far less popular than the others: a sign at the entrance proclaiming that a visitor must be "a Palo Alto resident" or "an accompanied guest" to enter.
The controversial policy has been in place since the park opened in 1965, despite arguments and memos from various council members, mayors and parks commissioners that it is elitist, discriminatory and immoral. Now, a fresh effort to change the policy and open Foothills Park to non-residents is once again underway.
Several members of city's Parks and Recreation Commission recently brought up the idea of opening up access to Foothills Park, commission Chair Don McDougall said Monday during a joint meeting between the commission and the City Council. Three commissioners — Jeff Greenfield, Jeff LaMere and Ryan McCauley — sit on an ad hoc committee that is exploring this idea.
And while a policy change would still be months if not years away, the city's Community Services Department is now considering the possible impacts of loosening the restriction. Daren Anderson, who manages the Open Space, Parks and Golf Division in the Community Services Department, told the Weekly that the committee and staff have been "informally" researching the issue of increasing access to Foothills Park. At some point soon, he said, he expects the topic to be discussed by the full commission.
For former Councilman Cory Wolbach, the change can't come soon enough. Last month, Wolbach tweeted that the Foothills Park policy exemplifies "institutional racism." The policy, he wrote, is "unacceptable and needs to change."
He is by no means the only former elected official who feels that way. Former Mayor Leland Levy attended the Monday meeting and urged the city to explore the issue.
"As a Palo Alto resident, I have interfaced with all our local adjacent communities, and the one thing that they universally deprecate is the fact that Foothills Park is exclusive to Palo Alto residents, and they don't quite understand why," Levy said.
The policy goes back to 1959, when Palo Alto bought Foothills Park from the family of Russel Lee for $1.29 million. At the time, the city asked other jurisdictions to chip in and they declined. After Palo Alto residents authorized the purchase, the City Council passed an ordinance limiting access to local residents.
Today, those who favor maintaining the policy generally frame the issue in terms of environmental protection and note that non-residents already have ways to get into the park, notwithstanding the sign at the entrance.
Anyone who takes a trail from Arastradero Preserve can enter Foothills Park, Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted Monday. The city was required to make this trail open to the broader public as part of an agreement with Santa Clara County, which contributed the funding the city needed to purchase 13 acres of open space next to Arastradero Preserve.
In addition, even though non-residents are banned from driving into Foothills Park on the weekend, many arrive during the week, Kniss said.
"I think the perception that this is closed is erroneous, and many, many people from Los Altos Hills ride in on a regular basis on their horses," Kniss said.
But even though non-residents currently have ways to get into the park, Levy, Wolbach and others believe the city can do a lot more to make the park less exclusive. Levy said Monday that the city should conduct a study to see how many visitors Foothills Park can accommodate without having its environmental integrity compromised.
"We need to have data which says how much Foothills Park can be used and to what degree we can have outside residents access Foothills Park, the way we Palo Altans can access all the parks in the Santa Clara and San Mateo foothills and in the Baylands as well," Levy said.
Wolbach, who served on the council between 2014 and 2018, told the Weekly that he had tried as a council member to get his colleagues to change the policy but did not get much support. Others have experienced similar setbacks. Former Councilman Ron Andersen led an unsuccessful effort in 1998 to change the resident-only requirement. And in 2005, then-council members LaDoris Cordell, Judy Kleinberg and Dena Mossar penned a memo recommending that the Parks and Recreation Commission study the idea. Their idea fell one vote shy of advancing.
Wolbach said he was motivated to resurrect the issue after reading about Palo Alto's segregationist land-use policies in the 1950s and 1960s. (The policies included restrictive covenants that barred home sales to non-white residents and "blockbusting," an effort by real-estate agents and speculators in the 1950s to push black residents into living in East Palo Alto.) By making it difficult for non-white residents to buy homes in Palo Alto and by limiting Foothills Park only to local residents, the city was effectively creating a park for white people.
"I'm not making the case that this policy was racially motivated, but what we know is that at the same time that Foothills Park was created, which excluded people not from Palo Alto, the city was also excluding people who weren't white. So even if the intent wasn't racist, the effect was," Wolbach said. "It's the racially disparate impact that's the issue."
Another issue with the current Foothills Park policy is its inconsistency with the city's actual enforcement practice. Commissioner McCauley noted that the municipal code makes it a misdemeanor for a non-resident to enter Foothills Park — a policy that he called "draconian."
What this means is that if one leaves the designated Arastradero-to-Foothills trail, he or she is committing a crime.
"I can't imagine any city of Palo Alto ranger or police officer enforcing that law or any judge by any means sentencing someone for violating that law," McCauley said. "But it's I think an example for why we can probably improve upon our current policy."