Palo Alto's scenic and exclusive Foothills Park will officially open up to residents from other cities on Thursday morning after a referendum petition failed to get the needed signatures to maintain the park's long-standing "residents-only" rule.
Resident Irina Beylin, who spearheaded a referendum petition, told this news organization that her group has been unable to get the nearly 2,600 signatures that would be required to move the effort ahead by Wednesday's deadline. She and other supporters of the referendum were looking to overturn the City Council's vote on Nov. 2 to scrap a 1965 law that bars people who live in other cities from entering the 1,400-acre preserve unless accompanied by a Palo Alto resident.
Beylin said the effort was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it virtually impossible to gather signatures in person. Recent regional restrictions kept the petition circulators from collecting signatures in front of stores, schools and other public places.
Beylin said that she had requested the city allow for electronic signatures or to extend the 30-day deadline to allow the creation of a secured website, but City Attorney Molly Stump said Monday that changing the process for a referendum petition would require a revision of the City Charter, which requires a public vote.
Had the petition advanced, Palo Alto would have suspended its plan to open the park to nonresidents on Dec. 17. Instead, the current policy would remain in place while the City Clerk and the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters offices verify the signatures, City Manager Ed Shikada told the council Monday.
"It would not be prudent for us to open and then have to reclose," Shikada said.
If the signatures were verified, the council would've faced the choice of either repealing the ordinance to expand access to the park or sending the issue to the voters in 2022.
The council agreed to repeal the long-standing policy on Foothills Park in response to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and a group of residents from Palo Alto and other cities. The suit argued that the policy of restricting access to Foothills Park is rooted in the city's history of racial discrimination, which includes practices such as redlining, blockbusting and including racially restrictive covenants in deeds. The Foothills Park policy, the suit argues, continues to exclude people who were "denied the right to reside in the city during the era of outright racial exclusion."
The suit also claimed that the policy violates the constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. While most council members rejected the idea that banning nonresidents constitutes a racist policy, they had determined that the city is unlikely to prevail in a lawsuit over First Amendment rights. On Nov. 2, they voted 5-2, with council members Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka dissenting, to repeal the ban and to limit the number of people who can be at Foothills at one time to 750 in the first 90 days after the park opens (after that, it would revert to its current limit of 1,000 visitors).
The council also requested at the time that staff return to the Parks and Recreation Commission and the council with proposals for fees to be charged at the park, capacity limits and studies on park management and ways to preserve the park's environmental integrity. In addition, it is preparing to kick off a process for changing its name to Foothills Natural Preserve.
Supporters of expanding access to Foothills Park have long maintained that removing the policy is a fair and decent action, noting that no other California city has policies banning nonresidents from a park. Those in favor of retaining the 1965 policy counter that the access restriction is needed to protect the nature preserve's sensitive habitat. They also note that at the time that Palo Alto was establishing Foothills Park, other jurisdictions declined to provide funding for the park's creation.
Prior to the lawsuit, the council was preparing to open Foothills Park to residents outside of Palo Alto on a more limited basis, through a pilot program that would allow up to 50 nonresident permits per day. The council had approved that program in August, when it also indicated that it planned to send the issue to the voters in 2022.
By instead repealing the residents-only requirement, the city was able to settle the lawsuit. On Nov. 16 they officially approved the settlement, which included a court injunction barring the city from reinstituting the ban on non-residents at any time in the future. Had the referendum petition moved ahead, the settlement would have been nullified and the lawsuit would have resumed.
Beylin said that she supported the pilot program that the council approved in August, which would have slowly expanded access with greater buy-in from the broader public. By its Nov. 16 decision, the council circumvented the democratic process, she maintained.
"The current changes to Foothills Park Ordinance were approved by City Council behind closed doors without input from the public," the referendum states. "The measure to open Foothills Park to the General Public should be put on the ballot and details should be openly discussed with constituents."
Beylin said Wednesday that the petition received about 1,200 signatures, close to half of what was needed. But with Santa Clara County imposing new restrictions against COVID-19 earlier this month and with the city not allowing electronic signatures, she conceded Wednesday that her group would not reach the needed signature threshold and notified City Clerk Beth Minor that she would not be submitting the petition.
Beylin said she was encouraged by the outpouring of support from residents nonetheless. She said many are as concerned as she is about the council's decision to veer away from its August vote because of a lawsuit.
"People are very involved. They are really motivated. They want what's best for the city," Beylin said.
With the referendum drive fizzling, proponents of expanding access to Foothills celebrated the policy change. William Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in a statement that the plaintiffs are "delighted that we could arrive at a constructive settlement with the city that recognizes the fundamental rights of all persons — not just the most privileged — to freedom (of) speech and enjoyment of public land."
The Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley, said he looks forward to "seeing youth groups from East Palo Alto and the surrounding communities freely enjoying the beauty of the park — youth groups that have not had an equal opportunity to experience nature preserves and to understand what they are."
LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge and former member of the Palo Alto council, said she was "heartened that five members of our city council did the right thing by courageously voting to accept the settlement agreement that will finally open Foothills Park."
"The fact that there weren't 2,500 Palo Altans willing to sign a referendum petition is great news," Cordell, a plaintiff in the suit and a longtime proponent of expanding park access, said in a statement. "It means that, as we come to the close of a very dark year, our community has chosen inclusion over exclusion. I am thrilled to know that the park's entry restrictions are now a thing of the past."