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.

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