Calling it an "outdated" policy that sends a terrible message, dozens of Palo Alto residents and community leaders are petitioning the City Council to immediately abolish a law that keeps residents who live in other cities from visiting Foothills Park.
More than 90 supporters submitted a letter to the City Council on Sunday, calling for the city to end the long-standing policy. The list of co-signers includes U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Assemblyman Marc Berman and the majorities of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission and Human Relations Commission. It also includes former City Councilwoman and retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a longtime proponent of opening up access to Foothills Park, and the Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor at University AME Zion Church and chairman of the Human Relations Commission.
Smith, who recently highlighted in a recent guest opinion for the Palo Alto Weekly, is joined on the petition by Rabbi David Booth and Rabbi Sarah Graff, both of Congregation Kol Emeth, Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit of Congregation Beth Am and the Rev. Terry Gleeson, rector at All Saints Episcopal Church.
All of them signed a June 7 letter that calls for the city to repeal a law that was enacted shortly after the city purchased Foothills Park from the family of Russell V. Lee in 1959. Because other neighboring cities didn't want to chip in for the purchase, the City Council agreed at the time to ban non-residents from visiting the park unless they were accompanied by a resident.
The policy has been subject to significant debate in recent decades, though every effort to abolish it has ultimately floundered. Opponents of expanding access have argued that letting more people into the park would effectively tarnish the pristine nature of the preserve located in the hills above Palo Alto off Page Mill Road.
Last year, the push gained some momentum when the Parks and Recreation Commission voted to launch a pilot program that would eliminate the ban on non-residents while still limiting the total number of visitors. Despite the commission's vote last November to move ahead with the program, the council has not taken up the issue and the 1,400-acre preserve remains the exclusive domain of local residents.
Ryan McCauley, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission who helped craft the pilot program, said the recent wave of protests demanding justice and racial equality underscore the need for the city to lift the ban.
"For me personally, it's certainly is a time when we're all called on to reflect on the ways that we can do better, particularly when our own community has fallen short of the mark in some regards," McCauley told this news organization. "And this is just one small piece of the way we need to be a more inviting community, particularly for people with diverse backgrounds and diverse economic situations."
The letter calls for the city to "meet this moment" and repeal the ordinance that makes visits to Foothills Park a misdemeanor for non-residents. It also asks the council to direct the Parks and Recreation Commission to craft "a 21st Century policy that demonstrates our City's commitment to equality, openness and resource protection."
"This policy sends a terrible message to our neighboring communities — particularly those which do not enjoy the same sociologic advantages that Palo Alto does — and leaves a bad taste in the mouths of thousands of would-be visitors who are prohibited by uniformed City staff from entering a public park," the letter states.
The letter was submitted one day after thousands of people took to Palo Alto streets for a rally to support social justice and racial equality in the aftermath of the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The peaceful demonstration was one of hundreds of protests that have unfolded across the nation over the past two weeks, prompting calls for police reform and accountability.
The Palo Alto City Council plans to approve Monday night a resolution pledging to review police practices and "implement measure that reflect no tolerance for police violence, prejudice, discrimination and harm."
The letter states that the Foothills Park ordinance "is only a small piece of the much larger policy choices that we need to make at this time, but it is a long-simmering issue that we can and should address now."
The call to discard the policy is far from new. Former City Councilman Cory Wolbach has characterized the ban on non-visitors as an example of "institutional racism." Former Mayor Leland Levy and Cordell have been urging for the policy's abolition for years. In September, Cordell told the Parks and Recreation that it's time to "bring the park into the 21st century."
"Enough of this elitism and the exclusionism," Cordell told the commission at the Sept. 23 meeting.
In addition to Levy, the list of former mayors who co-signed the letter includes Pat Burt, Gail Woolley, Dena Mossar, Betsy Bechtel, Vic Ojakian, Peter Drekmeier and Nancy Shepherd. The letter also has picked up the endorsement of the NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley.
McCauley noted that the situation has changed since November, when the commission approved the pilot program by a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Jeff Greenfield dissenting. For example, given the COVID-19 pandemic, it's no longer clear whether it's a good idea to have rangers check the driver's licenses of every visitor to the park. The city should take a "broader look" at the policy, he said.
He also rejected the notion that allowing more people to visit Foothills Park would diminish the park.
"Any sort of idea that there has to be tension between providing access to the outdoor opportunities for all people, regardless of what ZIP code they might live in, and the idea that we might not be able to preserve and protect our environment is I think a false tension," McCauley said. "We can find the right way to balance making sure that Foothills Park remains a very special place and that we share it."
Read the full letter here: