Palo Alto Commission proposes pilot program to open Foothills

Palo Alto Commission proposes pilot program to open Foothills

Since the 1960s, locals have enjoyed hiking through the forest trails, watching the sunset and observing the copious amounts of flora and fauna of Foothills Park. However, this luxury has only been enjoyed by Palo Alto residents. In response to complaints about this controversy, the Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission and Foothills Park Ad Hoc Committee discussed different options to open up Foothills to nonresidents on Nov. 12.

According to the staff report from the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, a pilot program proposal is being implemented to test providing about 50 park passes to nonresidents and broader availability for student field trips.

Nonresident passes will include a dollar fee for the cost of certain expenses such as staffing the entry gate.

One of the people taking care of the logistics regarding the program is Daren Anderson, Division Manager for The City of Palo Alto. According to Anderson, the intent of the pilot project is to control the number of nonresidents that can enter Foothills, so that the park itself is not negatively impacted.

Geoff Paulsen, who is the grandson of the family that sold and donated the land to create Foothills park, wrote an open letter to the City of Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission and agreed with the committee’s recommendation to open Foothills.

Paulsen briefly stated that from his own experience working as a park ranger, he knows Foothills Park is often underused, and an increase of people would minimally affect the biodiversity in the area.

He gives his full support for the proposal and recommends the commission gives it their unanimous support as well. Although allowing the park to be open will allow more access and opportunity for people to explore nature, there are some downsides.

“One of the potential cons is that sometimes bringing in more people into a sensitive place/habitat than it can accommodate can have unintended consequences (such as) impacting the plants, trees, wildlife or exceeding the available parking, additional trash and litter,” Anderson said. “However, if the pilot project is approved, the park rangers will try to manage and control the number of passes for non-residents to enter the park to prevent those impacts.”

The pilot year idea for Foothills was decided by Ryan McCauley, one of the commissioners on the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Having loved the outdoors since he was a kid, McCauley said he has been impressed by Palo Alto’s parks, open space and recreational offerings.

“Through high school and college, I worked in my hometown’s Parks and Recreation  department and then for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter, so I’ve been drawn to this area for some time,” McCauley said.

According to McCauley, The Parks and Recreation Commission came to this pilot program proposal after considering numerous alternatives, including three public meetings and lots of numerous informal feedback sessions.

McCauley also agrees with the decision to open up the park to more communities than just Palo Alto.

“I’ve lived in Palo Alto for over a decade, but not having grown up here, this policy has always struck me as unwelcoming and unusual,” McCauley said. “We have signs at all of the major entry points to the city that say ‘Palo Alto Welcomes You’ — a sentiment I’ve always found to be true — but the residents-only policy contradicts that message, especially when delivered at the park gate by a uniformed Palo Alto ranger.”

According to McCauley, Foothills rangers have had to turn away over 3,000 visitors in the most recent year.

“Sending so many would-be visitors away with a bitter taste in their mouths is a problem, particularly when we have tools at hand to accommodate their visits through an updated policy,” McCauley said.

McCauley also feels a personal connection to opening the park up to the public. Growing up in the rural part of the West, McCauley said that few families knew wealth, but everyone was a proud public owner.

“This instilled in me a sense that our open space is special precisely because it is open to all community members — regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status,” McCauley said.

McCauley also explained that since out community extends beyond the physical limits of our city, Palo Altans should reasonably share their park resources with other neighboring communities.

The Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission have also received input about this decision from retired rangers at Foothills Park, the current supervising ranger, the retired Community Services Director, the Junior Museum and Zoo staff and many other leaders in the community.

“The principal concern that we’ve heard from community members is that the park may be changed if too many visitors are allowed,” McCauley said. “Fortunately, the design of this pilot directly addresses and mitigates that concern.”

Although many Palo Alto Unified School District students are able to visit Foothills, those who attend Stanford University, which is just an intersection away from Paly, do not get that same privilege unless students are Palo Alto residents. Stanford student Yuji Sugimoto, wrote about the entrance rule of restriction of Foothills in July of 2019.

Despite residing in Stanford, Sugimoto was not allowed to go to Foothills since he did not technically live in Palo Alto.

“When I was turned away from this park, it kind of clicked to me that this would be something interesting for me to write about,” Sugimoto said. “I found out recently that Ryan and some other people on the Parks and Rec Commission were moving towards trying to open this park, and I was excited about that.”

Sugimoto was surprised after researching to find out that this rule had been made in the 1960s, when the land was first sold.

He said he has always been an outdoors person and found it unexpected to not be allowed into this specific park.

“It’s pretty weird, I don’t know any other park that is treated like a golf course basically,” Sugimoto said. “Parks are supposed to be like open areas where people are supposed to meet, recreate and come together and to have a policy like this just seemed backwards.”

According to Sugimoto, the conversation of Foothills being exclusive had stirred a lot of controversy in the past.

“If you look at the transcripts from when this was brought up to City Council in 2005, one of the big reasons why they decided to not to pursue a policy was that they were afraid of the turmoil it would cause in the town, and I don’t think that’s a very good reason to keep something closed,” Sugimoto said. “Whatever type of park it may be, nature should be something for everyone to enjoy.”

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