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Palo Alto Considers Opening Up Access To Residents-Only Foothills Park Amid ACLU Lawsuit

PALO ALTO (CBS SF) – Officials in Palo Alto are expected to consider a proposal that would open access to Foothills Park to the general public, as the city faces a lawsuit over the park's residents-only requirement.

"The proposed ordinance would open the park to the general public without exception, manage the park for the public benefit, maintain a capacity limit and ensure residents have first priority for reservable picnic areas and camp sites," Mayor Adrian Fine and Vice Mayor Tom DuBois said in a statement. "We believe this is the best way forward for Palo Alto and our surrounding neighbors."

Under the proposal (.pdf), the park would be renamed Foothills Nature Preserve and would be open to the general public, regardless of residency, with a 1,000 person cap.

The proposal comes a month after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit 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.

"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," retired judge LaDoris Cordell, a former Palo Alto City Council member and one of the plaintiffs, said last month.

The plaintiffs claimed in the lawsuit (.pdf) that the residents-only restriction violates both the U.S. and California constitutions because it infringes on freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Plaintiffs also claimed the policy is a vestige of the city's legacy of racial discrimination.

"It bars non-residents from entering a public park that occupies nearly 10% of the land in Palo Alto," the plaintiffs said "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."

City officials said they are currently in discussions with the plaintiffs for a possible settlement.

Under the settlement, the case would be dropped and plaintiffs would no longer seek attorneys' fees and costs from the city if the ordinance is adopted and the city agrees not to place new restrictions on non-resident access in the future. The city would also be allowed to charge an entrance fee to the park, but any resident discounts could not be greater than 25%.

Officials said litigation could resume "if Council adopts the attached ordinance and electors qualify a referendum on the ordinance for the ballot."

In August, 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.

The council is set to consider the proposal at its November 2 meeting.

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