Palo Alto is permanently barred from limiting access to visitors to Foothills Park on the basis of residency under an injunction that a U.S. district court judge signed off on Monday.
The injunction, which was issued by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila, is the product of a settlement between the city and a coalition of plaintiffs that included the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and residents from Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities. The City Council approved the settlement on Nov. 2, at which time it also voted to repeal the 1965 ordinance that restricted access to the 1,400-acre preserve to Palo Alto residents and their guests.
The permanent injunction that took effect Monday ensures that the city will not be able to reverse that decision. It states that the city and its employees are "permanently enjoined from restricting or prohibiting access to Foothills Park on the basis of Palo Alto residency." It also prohibits the city from "discriminating between Palo Alto residents and nonresidents as to access to Foothills Park," though the prohibition does not apply to facilities within the park.
The injunction also officially snuffs out Palo Alto's earlier plan to bring the issue of Foothills Park access to voters in 2022. That was part of the plan the council approved in August, at which time it also launched a pilot program that would allow up to 50 nonresidents into the park daily. In September, the coalition of plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, charging that the policy violates First Amendment rights, including free speech and freedom of assembly.
The lawsuit also stated that the city's ban on nonresidents "traces its roots to an era when racial discrimination in and around the City was open and notorious" and cites mid-20th century policies such as redlining and "block busting" that prevented Black people from buying homes in Palo Alto.
"It is long past time to relegate this unlawful exclusion to the dustbin of history," the suit states.
The council approved the settlement on Nov. 2 by a 5-2 vote, with council members Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou dissenting, paving the way for the city to officially drop the residents-only restriction on Dec. 17.
The injunction prohibits the city from placing on a future ballot or supporting "any referendum or initiative that has the purpose or effect of prohibiting or restricting access to Foothills Park by nonresidents of Palo Alto."
With the preserve now open to all, Palo Alto has seen a surge of visitors, particularly on weekends and holidays. One weekend in late December, shortly after the park was opened to all, the preserve saw roughly six times as many visitors as in the prior year.
Even before the November decision, the number of Foothills Park visitors has been on the rise. According to a report from Daren Anderson, division manager at Community Services Department, about 222,608 people visited the park last year, an increase of 42.5% over 2019, when the park saw 156,250 visitors. The report states that visitation levels have remained consistent over the years at about 150,000 people annually, with somewhat higher levels in 2011 and 2012.
Before the policy changed on Dec. 17, the city had turned away 4,260 vehicles in 2020 because of resident status, up by 13% from the prior year. The city also reported 523 "dog turn-aways" last year, an increase of 55.2% from 2019 (dogs are not allowed at the preserve on weekends and holidays).
Now, spurred by stories about hazardous traffic conditions and environmental degradation, the council is preparing to institute new restrictions for visiting Foothills Park. On Jan. 19, the council directed staff to prepare an emergency measure that would lower the cap on the number of people who can visit Foothills Park at one time from the current level of 750 to 400 (though staff has leeway to raise it to 500). Prior to last November, the visitor cap was 1,000 visitors.
The council also agreed last week to institute a $6 entrance fee for the park on an emergency basis, while allowing the Parks and Recreation Commission to come up with its own recommendation on fees and access limitations.
The Parks and Recreation Commission is scheduled to discuss Foothills Park at its Tuesday night meeting. The council plans to adopt the emergency measure creating the fee and the new entrance limit on Feb. 1.