The ACLU Foundation of Northern California is suing to get Palo Alto to remove its “unconstitutional residents-only restriction” at Foothills Park.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court argues that the non-resident ban at the 1,400-acre nature preserve traces back to “an era when racial discrimination in and around the city was open and notorious.”
The park is nestled between Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills, the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve and the Los Trancos Open Space Preserve. It was sold to the city by Palo Alto Medical Clinic Founder Dr. Russell Lee and his wife Dorothy Lee in 1958 on one condition: that the land was to be preserved as open space.
Since 1969, however, it’s been a crime punishable for up to six months in jail of a fine of up to $1,000 for non-residents to set foot in the park.
The lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP and 10 individuals who are residents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, says that the law violates non-residents’ constitutional right to travel and right to assembly.
“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 plaintiff LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge and former Palo Alto councilwoman. “The practice of blocking non-residents from Foothills Park perpetuates inequity, and it must end.”
Like many other cities in the mid-20th century, lending institutions and government agencies worked to prevent Black Americans from residing in or purchasing a home in Palo Alto. The plaintiffs argue that the exclusionary policies confined Black Americans to East Palo Alto and other neighboring cities.
“It bars non-residents from entering a public park that occupies nearly 10 percent of the land in Palo Alto,” the lawsuit read. “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.”
San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP President Rev. Jethroe Moore said the city needs to create more inclusive spaces.
“We need public green spaces that truly reflect the meaning of the word ‘public’—‘for the people,’” he said. “This is even more important during this time of global pandemic when outdoor public areas are some of the few places where we can safely and responsibly enjoy time away from our homes. This experience should not be exclusive to those who hold the most racial and socioeconomic privilege.”
In August, the Palo Alto City Council voted 5-2 to approve a pilot program where the city would sell 50 permits per day to non-residents who want to access the park.