Parks and Rec Commission dips toes in fraught waters

July 30, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

On July 23, the Parks and Recreation Commission attracted a rare large audience with two agenda items addressing what has historically represented the “third rail” of Palo Alto’s park politics: opening Foothills Park to non-residents and allowing dogs off-leash in unfenced areas of city parks. Neither of the items, instigated by two commission ad hoc committees, was agendized for action; they were intended to merely initiate a conversation and stimulate direction to the ad hoc committees for further consideration of options.

Foothills Park Access

Current city law limits park attendance to 1,000 visitors at a time. Non-residents are allowed to enter Foothills Park via hiking trails at any time, but if they want to enter by car, they must be accompanied by a resident. In practice, however, the residency requirement is only enforced on weekends and holidays. Despite that de facto open door policy five days a week, Commissioner Ryan McCauley, a member of the commission’s Foothills Park ad hoc committee and the lead advocate for expanding non-resident access to the park, criticized the current law as a “very rough tool” for managing park use and preservation. He emphasized that access could be expanded in a variety or combination of ways.

The ad hoc committee presented three potential strategies for expanding park access:

  • Update the municipal code to allow non-residents to drive into the park on non-holiday weekdays.
  • Grant full access to students in the Palo Alto Unified School District who live outside city limits and students of the Ravenswood School District.
  • Create a reservation system by which non-residents can purchase passes for weekend access.

Not surprisingly, public comment was split. Some favored expanded access as simply “the right thing to do” while others worried that more cars and people in the park would pose a threat to the serenity, flora and fauna, and maintenance level of the park. Commission Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield emphasized that any plan to expand access should minimize financial impacts on the city (including staff time), should be easy to understand, implement, and manage, and should readily facilitate monitoring of impacts.

It was unclear whether there was majority support on the commission for the underlying intention of expanding non-resident access. But if the city was to go that direction, commissioners generally seemed to favor strategies focused on underserved populations, students, and people who volunteer their services in Palo Alto. Commissioner David Moss wanted the commission to take note that Palo Alto is growing and that the 1,000-visitors-at-a-time limit could eventually lead to Palo Altans being turned away even if the residency requirement were retained.

Off-Leash Dogs

Unlike expanding users in Foothills Park, expanding opportunities for residents to exercise their dogs off-leash is a priority policy in the 2017 Parks Master Plan. Attentive to that policy, the ad hoc committee on dog parks recommended that the commission support using Capital Improvement Project (CIP) funding available in FY2020 and FY2022 to expand the dog parks at Greer Park and Mitchell Park. Dog owners frequently criticize the adequacy of both dog parks and each offers potential for larger exercise areas.

In addition to moving forward on dog park investments, the ad hoc committee sought commission feedback on the desirability of a pilot program that would allow dogs off-leash in designated unfenced areas of parks for a limited number of hours a day. Eleanor Pardee Park and Heritage Park were mentioned as possible candidates for such a pilot, but the ad hoc committee is still considering appropriate options. Commissioner Keith Reckdahl strongly supported fenced dog parks, but not unfenced off-leash hours, while other commissioners thought they could get behind a plan for unfenced hours as long as it was a pilot project.

Consent Calendars touch on controversial Mercedes/Audi dealership and cell equipment standards

August 3, 2019Palo Alto Matters

Mercedes/Audi rendering


Second vote on controversial Mercedes/Audi dealership coming up on consent August 5

On August 5, on second reading, council will vote up or down, without debate to confirm its approval of a new Mercedes/Audi dealership at the former Ming’s restaurant site at the corner of Embarcadero Road and East Bayshore Road. When first approved on June 24, the project stirred objections from the public about spot zoning, traffic, and environmental impacts at an already badly congested intersection in a sensitive area subject to the Baylands Master Plan. Residents also raised concerns about the accuracy and adequacy of the city’s analysis of the proposed project and recently submitted a letter demanding corrective action for alleged Brown Act violations, citing improper public notice and a lack of transparency whereby city council members had access to details that were not made available to the public prior to the vote. The Planning and Transportation Commission recommended approval on a narrow 4-3 vote.

For its part, the Architectural Review Board was unable over the course of three meetings to make the “Findings” required for them to recommend council approval. Rather than continue ARB deliberations, Planning Director Jonathan Lait opted to bring the project to council without the benefit of an ARB recommendation, citing a city preference for “streamlined” review limiting the ARB to three meetings. After lengthy debate on June 24, council voted 6-1 (Kou dissenting) to approve the zone change and site and design application, but also directed additional consideration by the ARB to further refine the Conditions of Approval, taking into account project lighting, trees, and consistency with the Baylands Master Plan in particular. 

City may allow taller Wireless Communications Facility designs

On April 2019 the City Council adopted objective standards to regulate the design and location of wireless cell equipment installations on streetlight and utility poles throughout the city. June 17, council added an interim standard requiring a 300 foot setback from public schools. The Wireless Communications Facility, or WCF, standards are now slated to be amended once again on August 12 when council will vote, via the Consent Calendar, on adjusting the standards to allow taller WCF installation designs.

The WCF standards currently limit streetlight WCFs to 3 feet or 6 feet above the height of “similar surrounding poles,” depending on the type of design used. However, due to an unforeseen conflict with the Public Works and Utilities departments’ streetlight replacement standards, staff anticipates that the April 2019 WCF standards could unintentionally preclude an applicant from building any of the WCF designs described in the standards. Under the city’s replacement streetlight standard, over time new streetlights will exceed the height of surrounding poles by at least 2 to 4 feet, leaving insufficient space for pole-top WCF antennae or other equipment. The proposed August 12 amendments would clarify that WCFs may not exceed 3- or 6-feet above the height of the “existing pole or replacement pole,” and eliminate the vague “similar surrounding poles” reference.

The city’s approval of a spate of new wireless equipment installations in the public right of way and recently adopted standards for wireless communications facilities have stirred significant public controversy as residents have sought greater protection from potential negative impacts arising from cell antennas close to homes and schools. However recent Federal Communications Commission regulations strictly limited local discretion to reject small cell antenna equipment installations, constraining the city’s regulatory authority to “aesthetics” and allowing controls only by way of “objective standards.” Although some favor the promise of improved wireless signals and argue that negative impacts are overestimated, residents consistently comment by the dozens objecting to health and safety, visual, and property value impacts from the proliferation of small cell antennas and their associated equipment.