Seeking to grant more visitors access to Palo Alto's scenic and exclusive Foothills Park, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission on Tuesday threw its support behind a pilot program that would open up the site to non-residents.
The policy, which the commission has developed over the past year, calls for selling up to 50 permits to non-residents per day and gives the city the ability to adjust that number to prevent spikes in attendance. Permits would be sold for $6 each, similar to what Santa Clara County parks charge for entrance.
Residents would continue to have free access to the park, as they have since 1965. The city would, however, eliminate a provision in code that makes it a misdemeanor for visitors who aren't city employees or guests of residents or employees to enter the park unless they are walking in through the Bay-to-Foothills trail.
According to staff from the Department of Community Services Department, visitation levels to Foothills Park have dropped significantly since the park's early days. Fifty years ago, the preserve attracted more than 300,000 visitors annually, peaking in the early 1970s, when the park brought in 372,000 per year for two consecutive years.
Since then, attendance dropped by about 50%. Over the past 17 years, visitation has remained steady at about 152,000 people per year. The exception was in the 2011-2012 fiscal year when there were 202,000 visitors, a spike that "did not negatively impact the Park's resources and infrastructure," according to a report from Community Services.
Even so, many Palo Alto residents have bristled at the idea of expanding access to Foothills Park, arguing that it would harm wildlife and diminish the nature preserve. Others suggested that the city perform an environmental analysis before launching the pilot program or require non-residents who visit the park to receive training on how to handle wildlife.
Resident Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, suggested that the city needs to perform a "mitigated negative declaration" (an environmental analysis that is typically performed for developments that don't warrant a full "environmental impact report") before launching the program. And while she saw nothing wrong with allowing supervised field trips, she cautioned the city about opening the park to the broader public for social gatherings.
"When we have people just going to party or to barbecue — that's something we don't need to provide," Kleinhaus said. "There are so many parks in Palo Alto where people can do that."
Others called the exclusive policy an "embarrassment." Over the past five years, 2,800 non-residents have been turned away during the weekends each year, an increase from the prior decade, according to staff. In the most recent year with complete data, the number was 3,700.
Yuji Sugimoto, a student at Stanford University, is among those who were turned away at the gate. On Tuesday, he encouraged the commission to change the policy, which he said "perpetuates a legacy of exclusion that Palo Alto has been trying to move away from."
"It's a park, after all. And I can't list another park off the top of my head that has a rule like this. As a town that strives to be an open and inclusive environment and a leader in the Bay Area, it seems backwards to have a rule on a park that doesn't allow anyone except residents to enter," Sugimoto said.
The commission largely agreed and voted 6-1, with Commissioner Jeff Greenfield dissenting, to recommend rolling out the program on a one-year pilot basis. Its recommendation will now move on to the City Council for consideration.
The proposal to open the park has been championed by commissioners Ryan McCauley and Jeff Lamere, both of whom served on an ad hoc committee that developed the policy over the past year. Greenfield, who also served on the committee, lauded some of the program's goals, including a new policy of encouraging school field trips to the park, but argued that the proposed policy is too complicated and will entail too much staff time. He also said he does not support the tiered structure, with some visitors getting charged and others getting in for free.
He called the proposal to open Foothills Park a "divisive issue within the community," but acknowledged that even many of those who do not support allowing non-residents to visit "can live with the pilot program."
His colleagues, however, all agreed that opening up access to the 1,400-acre preserve is a good move. Lamere noted that the program will only be in effect for a year, after which time the city will have a chance to assess the impacts and adjust the program accordingly. Lamere underscored the benefits of having a formal field trip policy for the park, citing the effects of nature on health.
"We think those impacts are very important for our youth," Lamere said. "Increasing access for field trips for those outside the Palo alto area to visit Foothills Park is something that we see as a great addition, and something our city can offer."
Ryan McCauley, a member of Palo Alto's Parks and Recreation Commission, joins Weekly staff to discuss the proposed pilot program on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.