City council opens Foothills Park to nonresidents

City council opens Foothills Park to nonresidents

Arohi Bhattacharya, Staff Writer

In response to a lawsuit filed against the City of Palo Alto by various civil rights organizations, Palo Alto’s City Council voted Monday night to abolish the long-standing rule barring non-residents from entering Foothills Park.

Boronda Lake is one of the many lakes in Foothills Park that are now open to non-residents after Palo Alto City Council voted to abolish the policy preventing non-residents from entering the park. Mayor Adrian Fine voted in favor of the motion, using his own personal experience as a non-resident earlier in his life when he faced the restriction himself. “It is about the number of visitors, not the type of visitors or their geography,” Fine said. “What we cannot do is discriminate based on residency. The right thing to do is to open this park up.” Photo: Ethan Hwang

The motion to eliminate the restrictions passed on a 5-2 vote, with council members Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou opposing the plan. Both vouched for taking things slowly instead of making a hasty decision.

I think we should tread carefully here,” Tanaka said during the meeting. “I think there’s quite a few members in the community who are concerned about this.”

The motion will go into effect on Dec. 17, according to the council, and consists of the following changes: 

  • Changing the name of the park from “Foothills Park” to “Foothills Nature Preserve” 
  • Prioritizing Palo Alto residents for access to Orchard Glen Picnic Area and other smaller trails and sites in the park
  • Implementing entrance fees only on weekends for both residents and non-residents, where residents get a 25% discount
  • Extensively regulating park management and environmental integrity resources (for example, installing a real-time vehicle counter)
  • Changing the record for when a non-resident enters the park illegally from a misdemeanor to an infraction.

The proposal to remove the restrictions on access to the park was introduced in 2018 by the Parks Recreation Commission, but was prohibited from executing the proposed pilot program for Foothills Park in early 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The case was brought back to the council’s attention after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several non-residents filed a lawsuit Sept. 15 against the City of Palo Alto, claiming barring nonresidents from the park “perpetuates this historic exclusion and violates the constitutional rights [the First Amendment rights of freedom of assembly and speech] of individuals who are not Palo Alto residents,” according to a Palo Alto Online article.

The lawsuit details state that the ban “bars non-residents from entering a public park that occupies nearly 10% of the land in Palo Alto. It transforms this vast space into a preserve for the fortunate few: for people who were not systematically denied the right to reside in the City during the era of outright racial exclusion.” 

Many residents and non-residents believe that the Foothills Park restriction preserves Palo Alto’s infamous history of housing discrimination. Council member Liz Kniss said that lifting the restriction would be a step forward in removing the prejudice that comes with it, and called the removal “history in the making.”

Some council members and residents from both Palo Alto and outside communities suggested opening the park to 1,000 people — residents and non-residents alike — at a time, which aligns with the current proposal of maximum occupancy. However, Mayor Adrian Fine suggested temporarily limiting the capacity to 750 people in the first 90 days of the motion due to the park possibly experiencing a large swarm of nonresidents eager to enter during the first couple weeks.

“I think there are legitimate concerns about a flood of people in the first couple weeks, even months,” Fine said. “I say let’s temporarily lower the limit and allow park rangers and professional staff to understand what that does and give them a little more flexibility [in opening the park to the general public].”

To learn more about the details on the opening of Foothills Park to nonresidents, view the city council meeting here.