A park that for decades has had what might be the highest “entry fee” in the country — that is, the price of a Palo Alto home address — opened its doors to residents outside of the city on Thursday for the first time since 1965.
Previously, the park was off-limits to people who live outside of Palo Alto unless visitors were accompanied by a city resident — although it was an open secret that the entrance was not guarded on most weekdays. On Thursday, Dec. 17, the sign at the entrance listing the prohibition was gone as residents from other cities were finally invited to explore the park’s many offerings.
The gates opened Thursday in accordance with the Palo Alto City Council’s action to open the 1,400-acre park on Nov. 2 — and after a referendum petition launched to halt the opening failed to collected about 2,600 signatures needed by the Dec. 16 deadline.
Near the Foothills Park Nature Interpretive Center, a trio of cousins from Redwood City gathered on the enormous grassy field at the bottom of the hill in the early afternoon to enjoy a picnic lunch. Alejandra Alcala said it was their first time visiting the park.
“It’s really nice and open,” she said. “There are not that many people here.”
Near the Wild Horse Valley trails, a couple from Mountain View who had previously lived in Palo Alto were back for the first time in about eight years, visiting familiar trails with their dog Caspian.
Out on the Sunrise Trail, San Francisco couple Amy and David Leblanc were excited to explore the beautiful views of the park after learning about it in the news. Amy Leblanc marveled at the sights and her husband was struck by the backstory behind the open space.
The park’s opening came after much discussion and a lawsuit this year. In August, the Palo Alto City Council agreed to a pilot program to open Foothills Park to residents outside of Palo Alto that would allow up to 50 nonresident permits per day, and indicated that it planned to send the issue to the voters in 2022.
Then came a lawsuit in September from a coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and residents from Palo Alto and neighboring cities.
The lawsuit alleged that Palo Alto’s 1965 law banning nonresidents, “traces its roots to an era when racial discrimination in and around the City was open and notorious,” and violates nonresidents’ right to free speech by preventing them from expressing their opposition to the ordinance in the park. It also violates their constitutionally protected right of freedom to assemble, the suit alleged.
The city settled the lawsuit by repealing the residents-only requirement and on Nov. 16 they officially approved the settlement.
Despite fears voiced by some Palo Alto residents who were afraid of what might happen if the park were opened to people from other cities, it was not overrun with visitors, at least on the afternoon of opening day.
Christopher Sundita of Sunnyvale said he’s been exploring local parks during the pandemic and had been following the news stories about the park’s reopening before deciding to explore it on Thursday. “It’s beautiful and peaceful,” he said, noting the great views from Vista Hill. At Boronda Lake, Jen Edson, who lives outside of Palo Alto, said she’d seen on the fishing app Fishbrain that Boronda Lake was a good place to fish, and just happened to visit on the first day the park was open to people who live outside of Palo Alto. Meanwhile, Menlo-Atherton High School seniors Dylan Wang and Violet Taylor sat on the dock at the lake celebrating the completion of their last finals for the semester just earlier that morning.
However, not everyone was excited to see the park open to the public. Hiker Steve Rutledge, who said he first visited the park in the 1970s, said he opposed opening it to everyone because he wanted to ensure the natural environment is protected. He said he worried about the impacts to wildlife if the park were to be overrun with human visitors.
“I’ve had a lot of beautiful nature experiences here almost by myself. I don’t want to see it change,” he said.
Toward the trails near Wild Horse Valley, two Palo Alto residents, who declined to provide their names, said they opposed opening the park to nonresidents on the grounds that the city’s residents are the ones who pay the taxes for the park’s maintenance and that it isn’t fair for everyone else to use the space without paying.
Several other park visitors from Palo Alto didn’t express opposition to the park going public as much as apprehension about sharing a beloved place with newcomers.
As they hiked toward the Los Trancos trail loop, Lynette Philippe and Sue Nicholls of Palo Alto said they had come to the park to see how busy it would be on opening day. They were supportive of opening the park to the public, but added that they’d be willing to pay a $5 to $10 entry fee to ensure the park’s maintenance.
Another said she’d been coming to the park since she was a child and just wants to see the park preserved and taken care of. If that means having to pay an entry fee, such as those charged at the nearby trails at Hidden Villa, she would be OK with it.
Not everyone from Palo Alto was opposed to newcomers from outside city limits, though.
Drew Harwell, a longtime Palo Alto resident who offers outdoor after-school and preschool programs for children about the outdoors, said he felt opening the park was “long overdue” and that he’d always been “a bit embarrassed” about the policy banning nonresidents. The outdoors education program he teaches travels to a number of local parks and he had always been able to provide lessons at Foothills Parks. But when his students who live outside of Palo Alto wanted to visit the same park on their own on weekends, they weren’t able to — until now.
Hiker Cheyenne Pico of Palo Alto also saw the benefits of expanding access to the preserve.
“This is a great opportunity for the greater community to take advantage of nearby parks, especially with all of the lockdowns,” she said.