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ACLU Sues Palo Alto Over Residents-Only Access To Foothills Park

PALO ALTO (CBS SF) – The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Palo Alto on Tuesday over its decades-long policy restricting Foothills Park to residents only, calling the policy unconstitutional and racist.

The group filed a lawsuit in Santa Clara County Superior Court on behalf of the NAACP San Jose / Silicon Valley chapter along with 10 plaintiffs who reside in Palo Alto and in neighboring communities that can't access the park.

Palo Alto Foothills Park (Photo Illustration)

"I cannot in good conscience sit by while the city of Palo Alto uses my tax dollars to perpetuate the exclusion of people from public spaces in my community," said retired judge LaDoris Cordell, a former Palo Alto City Council member and one of the plaintiffs.

Cordell told KPIX 5 last month that she brought up opening the park when she served on the council more than a decade ago, but was met with disapproval.

In the lawsuit (.pdf), the plaintiffs claimed the residents-only restriction violates the U.S. and California constitutions because it infringes on freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

The plaintiffs also said the policy is a vestige of the city's legacy of racial discrimination.

"Well into the middle of the 20th century, lending institutions, government agencies, and private individuals combined to prevent Black Americans from residing or purchasing homes in the City," the group said in its court filing.

"The Ordinance perpetuates this historic exclusion and violates the constitutional rights of individuals who are not Palo Alto residents," the filing went on to say. "It bars non-residents from entering a public park that occupies nearly 10% of the land in Palo Alto. And it transforms this vast space into a preserve for the fortunate few: for people who were not systematically denied the right to reside in the City during the era of outright racial exclusion, and people who are wealthy enough to afford to move into the City today, as it has become one of the five most expensive places to live in the United States."

Last month, the council voted 5-2 against a year-long pilot program that would have opened Foothills Park to non-residents for the first time since the 1960s.

Mayor Adrian Fine was among those who supported the pilot program, but was outnumbered when the council sought a list of conditions, delaying any decision to open the park.

"It's inequitable," Fine said. "Effectively we're saying, you can only enter Foothills Park if you're wealthy enough to live Palo Alto."

Carlin Otto, who is a long-time resident of Palo Alto, defended the policy, saying opening up Foothills without restrictions would ruin the 1,400 acre city-owned park.

"I would love this to be available to other people," Otto told KPIX 5. "But if you just open up the park, it'll turn out like Arastadero, overcrowded, overrun, abused and ruined."

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