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 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 attending the council meeting via Zoom belonged to the former camp. Bruce Reyes-Chow, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said that the way in which the city engages in "racist, exclusive behavior is symbolic in the park."
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.
Nonresidents do 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 because a ranger is not stationed at the entrance. 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.
Those favoring the current policy argued that the restriction has nothing to do with racial discrimination and everything to do with preserving sensitive natural habitat. Foothills Park is not really a park, said Mark Nadim, who lives nearby. 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 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.
"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," Otto told the council.
Fine and Cormack dissented from the vote because they favored moving ahead with the pilot program without insisting it be revenue neutral or subject to a future vote by residents. Both argued that expanding access is the "right thing to do."
"It isn't going to 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" right now.
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 — the council had to find $40 million in cuts for the current fiscal year — 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 city 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. Meanwhile, the park's vacant supervising ranger position is currently frozen due to budget cuts.
Both Kou and Tanaka 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.
The directive for a vote, however, is non-binding, and the council in 2022 will 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 since the park, which was purchased from private land owners by Palo Alto residents, opened in 1965.
The council's action authorizes staff to draft an ordinance for the pilot 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.
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