Palo Alto's prolonged and highly polarizing debate over whether nonresidents should be allowed to visit Foothills Park moved toward compromise on Monday night, when the City Council agreed to expand access to the city's exclusive natural preserve.
The council voted 5-2, with Mayor Adrian Fine and Alison Cormack dissenting, to approve a pilot program that the Parks and Recreation Commission crafted last year, which will allow the city to sell up to 50 permits per day to nonresidents wishing to visit the 1,400-acre preserve off Page Mill Road. In doing so, however, the council also indicated that it wants to send the highly contentious issue to the voters in 2022 and directed staff to make the program "revenue neutral."
With its vote, the council took a small step toward amending a divisive policy that has been in place for half a century and that prior councils have tried and failed to change time and time again. Much like in the past, the council found itself in the midst of an argument between those who claimed that the existing "residents-only" restriction is exclusionary, elitist and embarrassing and those who maintained that allowing more visitors would diminish Foothills Park's pristine setting, imperil wildlife and require costly maintenance.
On Monday, the vast majority of the public speakers belonged to the former camp. Some argued that the residency requirement is deeply discriminatory at best, downright racist at worst. Bruce Reyes-Chow, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said that when he was preparing to move from San Francisco to Palo Alto, his friends told him "Oh, Foothills is yours now." They did not mean it as a compliment, he said.
The way in which the city engages in "racist, exclusive behavior is symbolic in the park," Reyes-Chow said.
Claire Elliott, a Ventura resident and ecologist with the nonprofit group Grassroots Ecology, noted that she often enjoys the parks and nature preserves at other cities, including Shoreline Park in Mountain View and the Redwood Grove Nature Preserve in Los Altos. But when people from those cities come to work with Grassroots Ecology, many go away dismayed that they cannot visit Foothills Park unless accompanied by a resident.
Nonresidents already have some options for entering Foothills Park by walking in from Arastradero Preserve or by visiting on a weekday, when the requirement is not enforced. Even so, the city has been turning away more than 3,100 vehicles per year from the park, according to Daren Anderson, assistant director for open space, parks, golf and animal services in the Community Services Department.
Numerous speakers pointed to Palo Alto's history of redlining, which kept many Black families from buying homes in Palo Alto. Given this history, the residents-only policy only prolongs the legacy of discrimination, they argued.
Others framed expanding access as simply an act of being good neighbors. Rohin Ghosh, a Palo Alto High student, said he often volunteers at Foothills Park. For his Eagle Scout project, he helped build a set of stairs by Boronda Lake, Ghosh told the council.
"The fact that some of the people who volunteered to help on my project, in the hot sun, digging into the hillside so that Palo Alto residents can use that trail, cannot themselves access that park is beyond me," Ghosh said.
Those favoring the current policy argued that the policy has nothing to do with racial justice and everything to do with preserving sensitive natural habitat in the 1,400-acre open space preserve. Foothills Park is not really a park, said Mark Nadim, who lives close to Foothills Park in the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood. It's a "very delicate ecological system that is environmentally sensitive." The more people trample on grasses and vegetation, Nadim said, the longer it takes for grasses and vegetation to recover.
"To frame this issue as racism, segregation or social injustice is an insult to every resident of Palo Alto," Nadim said. "This is one of the most progressive cities in the country, so let's not pay attention to words that are meant to intimidate you into opening the park to nonresidents."
Carlin Otto, a resident of the Charleston-Meadows neighborhood, told the council that many of her neighbors strongly oppose expanding access to the park. She said 33 of her neighbors had signed petitions saying they don't want to open Foothills Park to the general public. If the council wishes to change the policy, she added, it should do so through a vote of residents.
"I'd sincerely hope that you do not intend or wish to force this down our throats," Otto told the council. "Remember, we the residents of Palo Alto are the owners of Foothills Park — not you. Your job is to manage this resource according to our wishes."
Fine and Cormack favored moving ahead with the pilot program with no strings attached. Both argued that expanding access is the "right thing to do" and lauded the Parks and Recreation Commission for crafting the pilot program.
"It isn't going make it any less special if we share it," Cormack said of Foothills Park. "I firmly believe, having sat through all of the meetings and going through the details of the pilot program, that there is room. We turn people away and there is room for us to share it."
Fine chafed at the idea of sending the issue to a vote and predicted that the measure would not pass.
"You don't put civil rights to a vote," Fine said. "It's something significant here, where we are literally discriminating against nonresidents because they're not wealthy enough to live in Palo Alto and we're not allowing them access to open space."
Others were less sanguine about welcoming more visitors to a park that everyone acknowledged was "special." Councilwoman Lydia Kou cited fire danger, budget challenges and uncertainty over environmental impacts as reasons for proceeding cautiously on opening access. She advocated for preserving the status quo until 2022 and then letting local voters decide.
Councilman Greg Tanaka focused on the city's budget challenges and hinged his support for the pilot on assurances that the program would be "revenue neutral."
A 2019 memo from the Parks and Recreation Commission detailing the pilot program stated that staff estimated it would cost $89,000 per year. According to Anderson, the city would need to hire a ranger to ensure proper maintenance under the pilot program (the park's vacant supervising ranger position is currently frozen due to budget cuts).
Both ultimately agreed to support the pilot program as part of a compromise proposed by Councilwoman Liz Kniss, which called for the pilot program in the short term and the people's vote in the longer term.
While Kou's motion called for settling the issue in an election, the directive is non-binding and it will ultimately be up to the City Council in 2022 to determine whether such a vote will be held.
Even with these uncertainties, the Monday vote represents a long-awaited breakthrough in a debate that has repeatedly resurfaced in the community over more than half a century. Palo Alto purchased Foothills Park from the family of Russel V. Lee in 1959 at a cost of $1,000 per acre. At the time, it asked two neighboring cities, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills to contribute to the purchase. Both declined.
After opening the park to the public in 1965, Palo Alto instituted the residents-only requirement four years later.
According to a report from the Community Services Department, the city unanimously reaffirmed the restriction in 1973, pointing out that the park's acquisition was "paid for out of the City's general fund, and no federal funds were used." Since then, the issue of expanding access to nonresidents has bubbled up every few years, only to falter under political opposition.
Calls for opening up the park have grown louder in recent months, with both the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Human Relations Commission voting to expand access to nonresidents. To mitigate concerns, the Parks and Recreation Commission suggested a pilot program that would limit the number of daily passes issued to nonresidents to 50 (on traditionally busy days and weekends, the city would issue fewer passes). Nonresidents would also be charged $6.
Social justice advocates, including the Rev. Kaloma Smith, who chairs the city's Human Relations Commission, and former council member LaDoris Cordell were among the more than 100 residents, community leaders and elected officials who signed a letter in June calling for the council to abolish the residents-only requirement. Since then, groups of students have staged numerous demonstrations near the park, at one point spelling out the word "Desegregate" in large letters near the entrance. And Ryan McCaulley, a former Parks and Recreation Commission member who helped put the pilot program together, resigned from the commission in June after the council voted not to take up the item until after its July recess.
The Monday vote authorizes staff to draft an ordinance for the new program, which would kick off in the fall or winter of this year. The council will still have to approve the ordinance before the program officially launches.
The pilot program falls well short of the type of change that many advocates had clamored for: namely, removing the residents-only policy entirely. Even so, it represents a long-awaited victory for those wishing to make the sprawling preserve less exclusive. According to a report from the Community Services Department, the council considered removing the residents-only requirement in 1991 and 2005 and rejected it both times.
Debbie Mytels served as executive director of Peninsula Conservation Center (now known as Acterra) when the council rejected the policy change in 1998 by an 8-1 vote. At that time, much like today, residents who opposed the policy cited concerns over protecting the natural habitat or focused on the fact that other cities did not pay for the land. Others, she said, made statements such as, "We don't like those people in our park."
"This barely veiled racism was shocking to me," Mytels said, "I thought Palo Altans were more open to diversity and less involved with prejudice. I was wrong and disappointed when the council voted 8-1 (not to expand access). My hope is that 20 years later, we have matured in the community and have learned that people of all races and ethnicities can be respectful to nature."