The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the City of Palo Alto on Sept. 15 over the residents-only policy that Foothills Park has put in place since 1969. In May of 1959, the city of Palo Alto held an election asking voters to approve the purchase of Foothills Park from Russell V. Lee for $1,000 an acre. 62% of voters approved of the purchase, and Palo Alto subsequently purchased the land for $1.3 million.
Palo Alto asked Los Altos and Los Altos Hills to joint-purchase this land, but these cities declined. As a result, the park was opened in 1965 and made accessible to only Palo Alto residents in 1969.
William Freeman, a senior counsel at the ACLU of Northern California, cited the infringement of the first amendment as well as Palo Alto’s long history of discrimination as some of the reasons for the litigation. However, the first claim in the filed complaint was freedom of travel.
“It would be like saying to a resident of Palo Alto, you can’t go to Golden Gate Park because it’s owned by the City of San Francisco, or you can’t go to Union Square or you can’t go to Lake Merritt,” Freeman said. “There’s a long line of cases that establishes that people in this country have a right to go where they wish on public property and rights can’t be infringed unless the government has a really important reason to infringe it.”
Freeman also said that people are barred from freedom of speech. He mentioned the time when Alysa Cisneros, a resident of Sunnyvale and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and her daughter visited Foothills Park wearing a “Sunnyvale” pin and San Jose t-shirt, but were denied access to the park.
“The park labels itself as a great place or discussions or nature talks or weddings, and for people to get together, those are all examples of free speech which includes free expression,” Freeman said. “But if you are not a resident of Palo Alto, you do not have the right of free speech on that property.”
Furthermore, Freeman said the right of assembly is being violated as well.
“People in neighboring communities who are offended and in opposition to this policy have a right to go to the park to express their opposition, and the park is the best place imaginable to do that,” Freeman said. “They are prevented from doing that.”
Prior to the lawsuit, the Palo Alto City Council approved a pilot program at Foothills Park on Aug. 3, which will grant non-residents access to the park, starting either in fall or winter of this year.
The proposed pilot program, which was developed throughout 2019 by the Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission, will continue to allow Palo Alto residents to enter the park without requiring a fee, while the City of Palo Alto will grant up to 50 permits per day to non-residents at $6 each.
Lam Do, the Superintendent of Open Space, Parks and Golf said the $6 fee will go towards keeping the parks open, especially while the city is operating on a tight budget due to COVID-19.
“The cost to operate both Foothills Park and the Arastradero Preserve runs roughly $2.1 to 2.2 million,” Do said. “If there was revenue coming in from an admission fee or entry fee, it would contribute toward the expenses to operate the two preserves.”
However, a substitute motion was put up by the five to two person majority in favor of retaining the residents-only restriction, which calls for the pilot program to be revenue-neutral and fund the extra expenses requested by the five-person majority, such as further environmental studies. These environmental studies were deemed unnecessary by the Parks and Recreation Commission and would cost several hundred thousand dollars.
Freeman said opening the park underneath these circumstances so that there’s no net negative impact on the city budget is near impossible.
“The substitute motion is just an illusion,” Freeman said. “It’s just a way for people who don’t want the park to be open to indefinitely postpone and essentially prevent reopening.”
The resident-only policy also contributed to the history of redlining in Palo Alto, which led to underserved communities being unable to purchase homes in Palo Alto and therefore not have access to the park. Junior John Miller, who went to Foothills Park nearly every day during the summer to fish, said the park should be open to all.
“Perpetuating the ideas of redlining by keeping Foothills closed to the major public besides Palo Alto is not OK and not really acceptable,” Miller said. “Because in 2020 it’s time for a change. I think if done responsibly, opening Foothills to everybody is a great idea.”
Freeman said the park should be open to all because it isn’t enough to not be racist, but it is important that they are anti-racist.
“Palo Alto in 1959 was 1.6% black; in 2019, it was 1.6% black,” Freeman said. “There are lots of historical reasons for that, but there’s a long history of discrimination. And there’s no time like the present to say, we reject that path and we want to move past it.”
Those who are in opposition to the pilot program say environmental factors are a concern due to an increase in visitors that scare wildlife and contribute to the erosion of hiking trails. Opponents also say they enjoy the orderly environment of the park the way it is now.
Junior Matthew Lee, who visits Foothills Park several times a year, said he has noticed this difference between Foothills and the other parks he has been to.
“If you go to a different park, it looks like people haven’t been there (to maintain it),” Lee said. “At Foothills, you won’t see any branches in the middle of a trail. You can see fallen trees (in other places).”
Carlin Otto, a resident of the Charleston-Meadows neighborhood, gathered 33 signed postcard petitions advocating keeping Foothills Park restricted to Palo Alto residents only.
During the Aug. 3 city council meeting, she read a statement in response to the petitions, which read: “I do not want Foothills Park open to the general public. I value its quiet, its uncrowdedness, its pristine conditions, the opportunities to see wildlife. More people in the park will degrade all of these. I pay my taxes to keep it in this condition.”
Miller said he noticed the environmental degradations caused by an increase in park visitors.
“I think that a big way that having more people going to the park will affect the environment is overfishing,” Miller said. “The lake has a pretty small population of largemouth bass and channel catfish, and sometimes I’ll go up there and I won’t even get a bite.”
Senior Benjamin McShea, who has been a camp counselor at Foothills Park for over four years, worked at Foothills Park this summer on a day where nonresidents could enter the park. He said there was a lot more litter present, and nonresidents were not respecting the rules of the park.
“I think that they were unaware of the rules,” McShea said. “I think if we gave them two weeks and the breaking of the rules continued, then you shut [down the pilot program].”
Despite the littering, McShea said he is in favor of the pilot program, albeit with stipulations.
“I’m completely on board with letting whoever wants to come in from other cities to go to the park,” McShea said. “Just as long as they follow the rules and respect and preserve the nature, because with all the cities being built, there are not many areas like this around anymore.”
However, proponents of the plan to remove the residents-only restriction say restricting access to non-residents does not necessarily affect the environmental factors of the park.
“Regardless of residency, it’s more of how people make use of Foothills Park which is an open space nature preserve which does have wildlife,” Do said. “Even though we use it for recreational use, its primary use is a nature preserve, and there is a stewardship that is necessary to maintain the land.”
Additionally, Freeman said there are other examples of nature preserves that have no exclusionary policies and are not facing environmental destruction.
“If you want to talk about an ecologically sensitive area, the Baylands (Preserves) has lots of wetland,” Freeman said. “Baylands is open to everybody. I’ve never heard anyone say it’s overused or that people who come from neighboring communities destroy the park.”
Freeman said if the city reduces its current 1,000 park visitors per day cap, fewer people in the park, regardless of residency, could remedy the environmental concerns. However, this limit has not been reached in the past 20 years.
“To say only a few people from neighboring communities can come in at a time really doesn’t make sense at all,” Freeman said. “If the city’s really concerned about overuse of the park, just put an overall cap on admission to the park everyday, without regard to who is coming in.”
Furthermore, Freeman said historical trends show that the park is capable of allowing more visitors, as the annual use of the park now is around 150,000 people, while the use was around 370,000 people in the early 1970s.
“There’s plenty of room for more people in the park without environmental destruction,” Freeman said. “No one has ever come up with any evidence that increased use is going to damage the park.”
Another point of contention from the opponents of the pilot program is that Palo Altans’ taxpayer money should go toward their own benefit and not the benefit of non-residents.
“Please stop wasting our tax dollars on plans to open Foothills Park to the general public,” Otto said at the city council meeting. “If you feel that you absolutely must continue with this idea, put the issue on the ballot in November so that you can know how Palo Alto residents feel before you proceed any further.”
But Freeman said non-residents are also contributing taxpayer dollars to the General Fun, which finances the park.
“If you look at the general fund, much less than one-fifth of that is made up of revenues that come directly from property owners,” Freeman said. “Now, I don’t live in Palo Alto, so I can’t go into the park, but I go down to the shopping center, eat at restaurants on University Avenue, so my dollars fund Palo Alto as well.”
Los Altos resident Salim Damerdji told the city council since many people in the Bay Area study or work in Palo Alto without living in Palo Alto, they should not be restricted from accessing the park.
“I don’t think we should be building walls between our town’s public spaces,” Damerdji said. “There are a lot of towns that have large open nature preserves and pay the costs of upkeep without preventing other people from enjoying the land.”
Many advocates for opening the park to all, such as Debbie Mytels, a 40-year resident of Palo Alto, told the city council about their concerns regarding charging non-residents a $6 entry fee.
“While a $6 fee won’t bother people from Los Altos or Woodside, it may not be so easy for an East Palo Alto resident who makes $15 an hour,” Mytels said.
Despite opposing the fee, Miller wishes for the money to be put towards good use.
“It’s a little unfair (for a non-resident) to pay to get in, but hopefully that money is being used to support the park and keep it open for everybody,” he said.
Do said opening access to Foothills Park can positively impact many communities in the Bay Area.
“With access to open space areas, everyone benefits,” Do said. “We see that as an example in our other reserves that do not have the residency requirements (such as) the Baylands Preserves and Arastradero Preserve.”
Overall, Freeman said the goal of ACLU and this lawsuit is simple.
“No matter where you live, no matter who you are, you have a right to enjoy this beautiful piece of land,” Freeman said. “Everybody should be able to enjoy it together.”