STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN
Heralding a new chapter in the decades-long Foothills Park controversy, the Palo Alto City Council voted yesterday at 10 p.m. to remove its contentious non-resident restriction, opening the park to the general public.
The decision, which comes in light of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLUNC) in September, should settle the litigation and waive any attorney’s fees and costs that the City would have had to pay otherwise.
City Attorney Molly Stump expressed a high degree of confidence that the plaintiffs would drop the litigation if the City restricts future councils or ballot measures from reinstating the ban or otherwise obstructing non-resident entry. That settlement should be confirmed in the second reading, where the Council will finalize the decision. City staff indicated that the reading will likely occur within the week.
If approved in the second reading, the changes will go in effect starting Thursday, December 17.
In the 5–2 vote, with Council Members Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou dissenting, the Council voted to “amend or delete duplicate code language” and place a temporary attendance limit of 750 people at any one time for the first 90 days, in addition to lifting the non-resident ban.
Kou and Tanaka both cited concerns about binding a future council to the opening, as well as not properly representing their constituents; Kou claimed that in an independent survey she conducted, 66 percent of Palo Altans wanted to keep the park closed to non-residents and wanted the Council to fight the litigation in Federal Court, rather than cut a deal with the plaintiffs.
“There’s just simply no way I can support [opening the park now],” Kou said. “This lawsuit is a bully maneuver, and I think it’s unfortunate that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is using their name to support this lawsuit. It’s discrediting themselves and discrediting their reputation.”
The suit, which primarily charged the City with violating non-residents’ freedoms of speech, assembly and travel, also detailed Palo Alto’s history of racial discrimination — presumably in part what put the suit in the realm of the ACLUNC, as well as the NAACP which is cited as one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Previously, Tanaka had said he was concerned about the fiscal impact of opening the park due to the increased staffing and maintenance that would be required.
“We’re infringing on people’s rights,” Mayor Adrian Fine said. “And maybe we all feel infringed upon and annoyed and indignant that Palo Alto’s been accused of racism. But all that aside, the right thing to do is to open the park up. And I’m sorry it’s taken a lawsuit for us to get here.”
In addition, the Council unanimously voted to study proposals for entrance fees, park capacity and environmental integrity, as well as direct City staff to consider renaming the park to “Foothills Nature Preserve.”
“Tonight was just the first vote, but I’m heartened that Palo Alto is placing itself on the right side of history,” former Parks and Recreation Commision Member Ryan McCauley said. “I’m very happy to see that there was a strong consensus across the local political poles that opening the park is the right thing to do.”
McCauley, who spearheaded a pilot proposal that would have begun to allow non-residents to enter the park during a trial period, resigned in protest after the Council delayed voting on the program in June. When it did vote in August, it confirmed the program, but added provisions that McCauley claimed made it impossible to implement.
“I think all of us at the end of the day supported opening the preserve in August,” Vice Mayor Tom Dubois said during the Council meeting, prior to the vote. “Although some of us wanted a more measured process with the pilot, at this point I believe we should open the park to everybody.”
“We did have the option to open this park up back in June when we kicked the item out over our summer break,” Fine countered. “And in August, when it returned to us, the Council declined to remove the ordinance language prohibiting non-residents from visiting and imposing penalties on them for doing so. We had that chance and we chose not to take the gracious path.”
Fine and Council Member Alison Cormack dissented in the 5–2 August approval of the pilot program, citing the fact that they would have rather lifted the non-resident ban right then and there.
Environmental damage has frequently been cited by proponents of park restrictions. With the opening of the preserve, the City is set to install a real-time vehicle counter, increase waste collection service, improve parking delineation and work with Grassroots Ecology to monitor invasive species and any other environmental impacts.
Alex Von Feldt, Executive Director of Grassroots Ecology, which works to help protect the park’s environment, expressed support for lifting the non-resident restrictions.
“From what we see, the high-use areas really tend to be the lake and the large lawn throughout the main part of the park,” Feldt said during the meeting. “Those areas aren’t ecologically sensitive compared to other parts of the park and tend to get a lot less impact because it takes people a while to hike out there.”
Jeff Greenfield, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, urged the Council during public comment to take a “conservative” approach and set the attendance cap between 500 and 750 people, as well as mandate a $6 entry fee for residents and an $8 fee for non-residents.
“We have not been afforded the luxury of time to carefully assess and craft a plan for opening the preserve,” he said. “As stewards of our open space and on behalf of our community, we need to err on the side of caution.”
“If there are impacts to the park, I want to be absolutely clear: It’s about the number of visitors — it’s not about the type of visitors or their geography,” Fine said. “In this settlement, we maintain many park management and environmental sustainability measures that we can implement. What we cannot do is we cannot discriminate based on residency.”