A renewed effort to open up access to Palo Alto's pristine and exclusive Foothills Park is spurring fresh debate, with some residents saying that it's time let more people in and others arguing that doing so would imperil the very qualities that make the park special.
Both views were on display during the Tuesday night meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, which has been exploring different options for expanding access. Members of the commission have yet to issue a recommendation, though they indicated on Tuesday that they plan to tread slowly and carefully before modifying the existing, loosely enforced policy, which limits access to Palo Alto residents and their guests.
The debate over Foothills Park access has been raging on and off for decades, with various civic and elected leaders calling for the old policy to be modified, if not abolished entirely. In recent months, an ad hoc committee composed for three commissioners has been considering possible options for doing so.
Commissioner Ryan McCauley, a member of the subcommittee, is the leading advocate for changing the policy, which makes it a misdemeanor for non-residents to come to Foothills Park (with exceptions for those accompanied by residents or who are traversing the Bay-to-Foothills Trail on foot).
The policy, McCauley noted, is inconsistent with the city's practice. On most weekdays, the Page Mill Road gate is unmanned and anyone can visit. The residency requirement, the ad hoc committee found, is only really enforced during weekends and holidays.
The ad hoc committee recommended several options for expanding access to Foothills Park. The city can simply update the code to "formalize status quo" by lifting the residency restriction on weekdays. It can expand access to school-age children in the Palo Alto Unified School District who live outside city limits and for students in the Ravenswood City School District based in East Palo Alto. The city can also start selling visitor passes to non-residents each weekend, with the number limited to ensure the park does not get overused.
McCauley called the existing law, which makes it a misdemeanor for non-residents to visit the park, a "very rough tool" to accomplish the goal of preserving the park.
"We might have other tools available to us to allow us to do the same thing — to ensure we have the right balance between having the right number of people using the park and preservation of the park," McCauley said.
Others, however, cautioned that opening up access to Foothills Park would require the city to expend more resources to maintain the park, potentially taking funding away from other parks programs.
Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield, also a member of the subcommittee, suggested that allowing residents from other cities to use the park could take away Palo Alto's leverage in getting contributions from those cities for the park maintenance. The City Council voted to institute the residency requirement in 1959, five years before the park officially opened to the public, after Los Altos and Los Altos Hills were asked to contribute to the park's purchase but declined to do so.
Greenfield also suggested that inviting more residents into the park will also bring in more cars. At the same time, he said it would be interested in "incrementally increasing access without creating more problems than we solve."
"We want to avoid turning cars away, resulting in parking on Page Mill Road and increasing operation maintenance and environmental stress," Greenfield said.
While the commission didn't take any votes Tuesday, the majority signaled its support to expand access to students and volunteers. Chair Don McDougall, an environmental educator with the nonprofit Environmental Volunteers made a case for opening the park to students.
"You can't expect people to become stewards of nature if they can't care about nature. They can't care about nature if they can't be in nature," McDougall said.
Despite some concerns about over usage, visitation statistics show that the number of visitors today is relatively modest by historical standards. According to Daren Anderson, division manager in the Community Services Department, the park saw about 372,000 visitors for two consecutive years in the early 1970s. The number then sharply dropped in the 1980s and 1990s, bottoming out with about 29,000 annual visits in 1998 (the decline, according to a memo from the ad hoc committee, coincided with the implementation of a new user fee, which was used for infrastructure work and which was removed in 2001).
Over the past 17 years, visitation has been relatively steady, with about 152,000 visitors annually. At the same time, the city has been turning away about 2,800 non-residents every year for the past five years, an increase from the prior decade.
The city's Municipal Code also caps the number of visitors using the park at one time at 1,000 — a threshold that has not been approached except in the case of special events. The ad hoc committee recommends keeping that cap in place, regardless of which options for expanding access the city ultimately chooses.
Not everyone is thrilled about changing the status quo. Robert Roth, a member of Friends of Foothills Park and a volunteer at the park, said he was concerned that changing the policy would prompt the city to add more parking and potentially diminish the experience in the park.
"It seems to me it follows that if the park is overused, the magical experience of coming upon a flock of quail, or 30 or 40 young turkeys, or seeing a coyote or any of the experiences of the birds and the beasts and the flowers in the park could be lost," Roth said.
Others spoke in favor of letting more people into the park. Former Mayor Leland Levy said he regularly visits parks in other jurisdictions, including Hubbart Park and Rancho San Antonio. And while he said he admires how well the city has maintained Foothills Park, he felt "a little bit of a concern that I was there but neighbors were excluded."
Resident Barbara Millin suggested that as a public open space, Foothills Park should be open to the public.
"Palo Alto is a city, not a gated community or a country club," Millin said. "Keeping people out because they don't have the right ZIP code goes against the principles of many, if not most, city residents."