After a surge of visitors and reports of environmental damage following the Palo Alto City Council’s decision to open Foothills Park to nonresidents, the city council voted 6-1 in support of a visitor cap and a $6 parking fee at its Jan. 19 meeting. The council passed the parking fee, and the visitor cap — which limits park visitation to 400 people at a time — on Feb. 1, which will likely take effect starting Feb. 20.
Although councilmember and Paly ASB Director Greer Stone favored opening the park to nonresidents during his campaign, he said he wasn’t satisfied with the way the city handled the situation.
“I do wish that the city would have opened it up with a better plan in place, being able to anticipate the significant increase in daily attendance,” Stone said. “I think we should have had better policies in place to be able to prevent some of the problems that we’ve seen over the last several weeks.”
In its decision to open the park to the public, the city lowered the historic limit of 1,000 visitors to 750, but since the Dec. 17 opening to nonresidents, the 750-person cap has been frequently exceeded. To curb the increase in visitors, city officials announced starting Jan. 9, the entrance to the park will close around 10 a.m. and stay closed until 3 p.m. on days when the cap is exceeded.
Daren Anderson, the assistant director at the Community Services Department, told Palo Alto Online that 33,647 people visited the preserve between Dec. 17 and Jan. 2, a roughly six-fold increase from the 5,687 visitors a year ago. Stone said this sudden increase could be attributed to many factors.
“COVID-19 is driving a big part of the desire for people to get outside, and another part of it is obviously the novelty around Foothills Park — it’s only been open to residents for so long that people want to get in there and see what it’s all about,” Stone said. “We’ve also had some incredible weather, which is unseasonably warm and clear and beautiful, so I think that’s also been driving it as well.”
Menlo School junior Iyanu Olukotun was a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit that forced the city to open the park to nonresidents. He said entering Foothills Park for the first time was like stepping into a new world.
Despite the increase in attendance, Olukotun said that did not interfere with his experience at the park.
“You have the highest concentration of people in the entrances, but then all you have to do is travel 800 meters to a mile on a hiking trail (to avoid others),” Olukotun said. “I haven’t done an extensive hike, but my mom told me she has been doing some very long hikes, and she never crossed paths with anyone for the entire duration.”
However, 1981 Paly alumni Deb Goldeen, who has been a frequent visitor of Foothills Park ever since she was 2 years old, said wildlife such as foxes or king snakes are much less prevalent in the park because of the increase in visitors.
“You wouldn’t see that amount of cars and people that I saw compared to when I was a kid, even during a busy day like Labor Day,” Goldeen said. “There were easily five times, if not 10 times the amount of people. I was absolutely stunned.”
Because of the experiences of people like Goldeen, Stone said the council’s decision to implement a visitor cap and charge people a fee to enter the park was a good one.
“The truth of the matter is, we don’t know what the trends will be, or when the pandemic is over,” Stone said. “I thought it was important for the city council to move immediately on it, and then be able to provide it to the Parks and Recreation Commission, and study it for a long term view and get back to us with what policies we need as far as an attendance cap.”
Stone said the $6 parking fee is here to stay and is consistent with park fees in other cities and counties in California, but the 400-person cap could be increased.
“The anticipated price of maintaining the park for the city has increased significantly because of opening up the park, so the city does need to find a way to be able to offset some of those costs,” Stone said. “I don’t anticipate a 400-person cap staying permanently, but that all depends on what Parks and Recreation (recommends).”
Senior Laura Malgarino, who has reported on the park’s initial opening to nonresidents for the Stanford Daily, said she sees the need for additional funding in many aspects of the park due to its lack of maintenance.
“Foothills Park has six rangers for a 1400-acre park, and they don’t have a supervising ranger because that position was taken away,” Malgarino said. “They don’t have enough people to constantly have someone manning the entrance so, technically, if you wanted to, you could just walk in. They also don’t have enough money to always clean the bathroom so, during COVID-19, the bathroom only gets cleaned three times a week.”
The parking fee, though, has led to concern among some Palo Alto residents who say it could lead to illegal parking nearby. Stone said possible solutions include having an electronic sign telling people to turn around once the cap is reached or having a residential parking permit program.
“There’s a lot of pedestrians on the road,” Stone said. “It’s not a road for pedestrians, so I’m very concerned about that. Given the pandemic and the economic crisis, we have less resources to be able to enforce proper parking and enforce the rules on that road, so I’m hoping that the city, in the meantime, can provide more police patrols up there (and) community service patrols up there.”
Goldeen, who said she wished the park wasn’t open to nonresidents due to its effects on the environment, said she is unsatisfied with the parking fee but content with the visitor cap.
“It’s pretty dumb what (the city council) did with a $6 entrance fee because the state parks have a $6 fee — all those park entrance fees should be 20 bucks,” Goldeen said. “I think 400 (visitors) is a good number, and I’m glad they’re going to do a visitor cap.”
Although Olukotun doesn’t think the visitor cap is necessary on weekdays, he does not oppose the steps the city council has taken to curb the number of visitors to the park.
“I’m OK with (the parking fee) as long as the extent that nonresidents are penalized is in a certain margin compared to residents,” Olukotun said.
Despite issues such as a parking fee and environmental degradation, Malgarino said she still supports her original stance of opening the park to nonresidents.
“I don’t see how closing it off to nonresidents means that (Palo Alto residents) wouldn’t just hurt the environment (themselves),” Malgarino said. “I think the issue is more with the number of people rather than who the people are.”
“We don’t know if some of the bad behavior that we’ve heard are from residents or nonresidents,” Stone said. “At the end of the day, it’s more about making sure that we have a manageable number of visitors to that park to be able to enforce the rules and good behavior there.”