After moving to dramatically curtail access to Foothills Park last month, Palo Alto officially agreed on Monday to further revise entry rules to the scenic nature preserve and allow free entry to local students, veterans and visitors with disabilities.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council approved new rules that largely comport with recommendations from the city's Parks and Recreation Commission. This includes creating an annual pass for Foothills Park entry that would cost $50 for Palo Alto residents and $65 for visitors from other cities. The pass would provide entry to two cars from the same household. Visitors who don't have a pass will be able to enter by paying a $6 fee at the gate.
The council also authorized staff on Monday to raise the visitor cap to the 1,400-acre preserve so that up to 650 people can be there at any one time. The move follows the council's decision last month to lower the cap to 400 visitors (while allowing staff to raise it to 500). While the Monday revision raises the threshold, it also empowers staff to lower the cap to 300 if conditions warrant.
The Monday changes were the latest attempt by the council to balance the public's appetite for visiting the preserve, which has traditionally been open only to Palo Alto residents and their guests, and a desire to maintain safe traffic conditions and protect wildlife. Since the park opened to the general public on Dec. 17, residents, council members and city staff had reported unsafe traffic conditions both inside the park and on Page Mill Road, as well as an increase in "social trails" made by visitors who wander off official paths in popular areas such as Boronda Lake and Vista Hill.
In response to surging demand, the council approved on Jan. 11 an emergency ordinance imposing a $6 fee and lowering the visitor cap to between 400 and 500. The emergency ordinance that the council approved Monday supplants the January ordinance.
Kristen O'Kane, director of the Community Services Department, told the council that since the January action, the city has received quite a bit of feedback from users, with some expressing concern about the $6 fee.
"For those that come up to park four or five times a week, a vehicle fee of $6 each time was not feasible," O'Kane said.
The annual pass, she said, was identified as the best path forward to accommodate these visitors. The Parks and Recreation Commission refined the proposal for an annual pass, as well as for a revised visitor cap, at its Feb. 11 meeting.
In some cases, the council went beyond the commission's recommendations to make park entry easier for some segments of the population. Council member Greer Stone, who teaches history at Gunn High, successfully lobbied for giving all students free entry into the park. The council also adopted council member Alison Cormack's suggestion individuals should receive free entry if their vehicles have placards indicating a disability, going beyond the commission's recommendation to offer these individuals a 25% discount.
Similarly, the council voted to provide free entry to low-income visitors with annual passes, a step that goes beyond the commission's recommendation to provide discounts of between 25% and 50% for these individuals.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt made the motion to adopt the commission's recommendation but revised it so that the fees for these categories of visitors would be waived entirely. Stone agreed.
"We know low-income neighborhoods generally have far less access to green space, and I think it's really important to be able to provide that opportunity and to be able to, frankly, show the world that in Palo Alto, we're not trying to exclude these groups, that we're opening the door and want to be good neighbors," Stone said.
The council quickly coalesced around the adjusted proposal, despite concerns from other council members about some of the details. Cormack predicted that instituting fees at the entrance gate will create long lines of cars and possible backups to Page Mill Road. She proposed only charging entrance fees on the weekends.
Council member Greg Tanaka, meanwhile, suggested that the city may be exempting too many people from paying the entrance fee. He questioned the need to provide free entry for drivers with student IDs and suggested that the city only provide discounts to low-income visitors.
"Maybe the student driver is from Atherton or Los Altos Hills or Portola Valley or Old Palo Alto and they're very wealthy," Tanaka said. "They probably don't need a free pass. Isn't low-income just what we're trying to get at?"
Despite some hesitation, both Cormack and Tanaka supported the emergency ordinance, which required six of seven votes to pass. With the new rules now in place, the city plans to launch online sales of the annual passes on Feb. 27, according to Daren Anderson, assistant director at the Community Services Department.
To underscore the preserve's sensitive habitat, the council also approved on Monday the renaming of Foothills Park to the Foothills Nature Preserve — a change that was recommended by both the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Palo Alto Historical Association.