I formed two charities 14 years ago: Friends of the Palo Alto Parks, under the assumption that the city would not have enough money for our parks, and Mothers Against Murder (MAM), to assist victims of violent crime and their families.
The City Council is facing many major issues that are much more important than opening the Foothills Park preserve to all. Some major issues that the council has never addressed: the large number of auto break-ins that occur daily (it happened to me on July 20) and the increased thefts of catalytic converters from our climate-concerned citizens. In addition, gun violence also exists in our community and in the surrounding communities that have large numbers of Black and Hispanic citizens.
Few residents know of the shooting on Embarcadero Road in our town on June 10. Seven shots were fired at a young Black man at a stoplight. I met personally with the victim, who showed me the bullet holes in his car. Thankfully he was not murdered. Mothers Against Murder has offered a $10,000 reward to solve this outrageous act of violence in our city.
Days later, I attended the Black Lives Matter march and rally at our City Hall. Many presentations were made at the two-hour rally. There was no mention of the violent shooting at a Black man during the many presentations, to my great disappointment. Five speakers did mention opening up the preserve, to applause from the Bay Area crowd.
The front gate at the preserve has not been manned during the last 10 years due to budget cuts. So while there are many numbers expressed regarding usage and rejection of non-residents, the numbers do not have hard data and are pure guesses.
On Saturday, June 22, from 7:30 to 10 a.m., I conducted a survey at the gate of the cars entering the preserve. My question was, "Should we open up to park to other communities?"
No ranger was there during the time I was there and at least 50 bikers whizzed by the front gate.
A very fit Council member riding his bike, Eric Filseth, stopped to talk to me. He thanked me for doing this and asked about the results of my survey. The final result was 71% to keep the park as it is under the current policy.
The classic response to the survey was from a woman who is a frequent visitor to the preserve: "Don't ask me that question, ask the animals." I would love to be able to ask the animals. Clearly, additional visitors will not add anything to this beautiful one-of-a-kind preserve. There will be more cars, trash, 911 calls, wear and tear, fire danger, staff time and expense. We don't need crowds like Rancho San Antonio (a county preserve).
Why does a decision need to be made now, during these unprecedented times in our nation?
• We are in a severe recession, many of our local businesses are closed.
• The city is under enormous financial strain laying off 60 employees.
• The unfilled position of a head ranger has been frozen.
• Council meetings are now done on Zoom and not in person as we all would prefer.
• The parks and recreation departments have had their budgets slashed and also have closed park facilities. (For over a year, I have replaced — at my expense — damaged or missing Ping-Pong paddles and balls at Lytton Plaza twice a week due to lack of city funds.)
I feel there is much better use of our time, effort and limited money than bringing up this old issue of the preserve opening.
The preserve land was purchased from the Lee family at a favorable price in 1959 with the condition it would be preserved as open space. Our city contacted various of our neighboring cities to join in this expensive, wonderful and unique opportunity. All of the cities said, "Not me." This reminds me of the story of the Little Red Hen.
No other city on the Peninsula offers non-residents 34 parks open to all as Palo Alto does.
Some of these expensive treasures of our community are:
• Arastradero Preserve.
• Mitchell Park.
• Baylands Nature Preserve and Interpretive Center.
• Golf Course.
• Rinconada Park.
• Byxbee Park Preserve.
• Magical Bridge Playground.
These larger parks are used heavily by our neighbors, and most people feel that at any given time over 50% of the visitors would be non-residents. Palo Alto is a very good citizen to all of our neighbors.
This issue of opening Foothills Park has created very high emotions in our community. A recent letter to the council signed by various politicians and citizens states that it is "a crime punishable by jail time for non-residents to enter Foothills Park." In addition, there was a recent opinion column by Geoff Paulsen using the word "lynching." When the council delayed discussion of this issue, the emotions exploded. A commissioner resigned, and retired Judge LaDoris Cordell threatened a lawsuit if immediate action is not taken. This is not the Palo Alto way!
It makes no sense to be discussing this issue during these unusual times, especially when we have no solid data regarding the preserve. We should not allow this controversial issue to sneak into policy during this current explosive social climate, especially in the Zoom environment.
I feel strongly that this issue should be dropped at this time. This would be fair to all of the citizens of Palo Alto who may want to vote on this issue in the future.
As my wife, Judy, says, "The true residents of the preserve are the deer, bobcats, birds, wild turkeys, coyotes and racoons. We are the guests who must tread lightly."
I urge my fellow residents to contact the Council at [email protected] to ask that a fuller discussion of Foothills Park not be held now but after the current crises are over.
Roger Smith is the founding CEO of Silicon Valley Bank (now retired) and a board member of nonprofits. He can be emailed at [email protected].
The Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission will discuss the topic of opening Foothills Park to non-Palo Alto residents on Tuesday, July 28, at 7 p.m. See the agenda here.