Concerned about the recent surge of visitors to Foothills Park, Palo Alto leaders are planning to restrict access to the once-exclusive nature preserve by closing the entrance gates when the open space reaches maximum capacity on a temporary basis.
The City Council also is preparing to consider additional measures to limit visitation, including charging a parking fee and reducing the number of people that could be at the park at one time from the current limit of 750.
The new access restrictions will kick in on Saturday, Jan. 9, when the city will keep the entrance gate closed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., according to the city's Thursday announcement. The 1,400-acre preserve, which has long been restricted to Palo Alto residents and their guests, has reached its 750-person limit several times since the city officially opened it to the general population on Dec. 17.
The busiest time at the park has been between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the weekends, according to the city. This "creates safety concerns and road hazards, and large numbers of visitors have been turned away."
"This temporary measure is to help manage the number of visitors in the park and provide a safe, enjoyable and consistent experience to parkgoers," the city's announcement stated.
While the city's initial announcement on Jan. 7 had indicated that the entrance would be closed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends and holiday, officials clarified on Saturday that the restriction would only be put in place on those days when the capacity limit is exceeded. This could also mean restricting access on weekdays when there is high visitation, according to Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communications officer.
"Generally, staff has seen high visitation resulting in the cap being reached on the weekend and holidays though the temporary closure could go into effect on weekdays too," Horrigan-Taylor said in an email.
According to a report from the Community Services Department, visitation to the park has spiked since the Dec. 17 policy change, with the park reaching its 750-person limit several times each day. On the weekend before Christmas, 4,081 visitors came to the park, a roughly six-fold increase from the prior year, when there were 688 visitors.
The main reason for the change is the council's decision in November to abolish a long-standing ordinance that limited access to Palo Altans and their guests. The council made a move to expand access to Foothills Park in response to a lawsuit from a coalition that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and a group of residents from Palo Alto and other nearby cities.
With the number of visitors rising, staff is pointing to potentially unsafe conditions during peak hours for pedestrians and bicyclists who use the park roads, which are too narrow to safely accommodate them when cars are driving in both directions. The report also notes that the majority of visitors try to park near the entrance area, Boronda Lake, Orchard Glen, the picnic area and Vista Hill. This results in people "parking and walking in inappropriate locations causing damage to natural areas and creating potentially unsafe conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists."
To limit visitation, city staff is proposing lowering the capacity limit from 750 visitors (or about 280 vehicles) to 500 visitors (or about 185 vehicles). Traditionally, the park had a limit of 1,000 visitors at any one time, though the council had agreed to limit it to 750 for the first 90 days after expanding its access policy.
The council will consider this proposal on Jan. 19. It will also decide whether — and how much — to charge visitors who drive to the park. A proposed ordinance calls for a $6 parking fee, in line with other parks in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that charge for admission. The proposal also includes an option for a $50 annual pass for city residents and $65 for nonresidents.