A group of civil rights organizations and residents filed a lawsuit against the city of Palo Alto on Tuesday in a bid to repeal a contentious law that bans non-Palo Altans from visiting Foothills Park unless accompanied by a city resident.
The lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, Sept. 15, by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olsen, calls the 1969 law discriminatory and unconstitutional. It violates nonresidents' right to free speech by preventing them from expressing their opposition to the ordinance in the park and it violates their freedom of assembly by barring them from peacefully gathering in the preserve to address these matters, the suit argues.
"The ban on non-residents traces its roots to an era when racial discrimination in and around the city was open and notorious," the suit states. "It is long past time to relegate this unlawful exclusion to the dustbin of history."
The plaintiffs in the suit include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of San Jose/Silicon Valley and 10 individuals who are residents of Palo Alto and surrounding cities. These include LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge and former Palo Alto city councilwoman who has led the charge to repeal the prohibition on nonresidents at the 1,400-acre nature preserve. It also includes Menlo Park resident Gwen Gasque and former East Palo Alto Mayor Laura Martinez, who attended Palo Alto schools.
In a statement, Martinez said that she currently works in nonprofit organizations in Palo Alto and has spent much of her career in public service.
"Yet I am barred from entering the public grounds of Foothills Park," Martinez said. "It is time for Palo Alto to end its exclusionary policy and welcome all members of the surrounding community to Foothills Park."
View a copy of the lawsuit here.
Alysa Cisneros, a Sunnyvale resident who is also a plaintiff in the suit, cited an incident this past Fourth of July when she took her daughter to Foothills Park to protest the law. The ranger turned them away at their entrance because they don't live in Palo Alto, she said.
"On this most American of holidays, we were reminded of the inequities that still exist in our own backyards," Cisneros said in a statement. "I want to show my daughter that it is important to face the things that are wrong in our communities, and to work to do something about them."
The lawsuit escalates a community debate that has been going on in Palo Alto and that has taken on a new life in the past year, with both the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Human Relations Commission recommending a pilot program to allow a limited number of nonresidents to visit the park. With the recent nationwide uproar over racial injustice in the aftermath of the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, many residents have pointed to the Foothills Park policy as an example of the city's legacy of discrimination.
The council has proceeded with caution on the subject. After delaying action on the issue multiple times, the council approved the pilot program in August but stipulated that the program needs to be revenue-neutral, a requirement that the city has not imposed on any other park or open space. The council's motion also directed a non-binding direction to a future council to bring the issue of whether nonresidents should be allowed to Foothills Park to the voters in 2022.
During the Aug. 3 meeting, some residents and council members firmly rejected the notion that barring nonresidents from the park is in any way discriminatory. The restriction, they argued, is necessary because allowing more people to enter the preserve would diminish the pristine natural setting. Others pointed to the unwillingness of other cities to help Palo Alto buy Foothills Park in the 1960s, decisions that prompted the city to institute the ban.
Roger Smith was among those arguing against relaxing the policy. He noted that expanding access would require more expenditures by the city at a time when the budget is tight and the council is focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. He also suggested that letting more people into the park would harm its "fragile and unique" ecosystem.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, alleges that the restrictions violate both the United States and California constitutions and entail needless spending of city resources for enforcement. The ban, it argues, "harkens back to a shameful era in the city's history" — a period in the middle of the 20th century when lending institutions, government agencies and private individuals worked to prevent Black individuals from buying homes in Palo Alto.
It cites a resolution passed by the Palo Alto of Chamber of Commerce at the time calling for a "segregated district for the Oriental and colored people of the city," the placement of racially restrictive covenants in deeds for the sale of homes and practices such as "redlining" and "block busting," which respectively prevented Black residents from obtaining mortgage insurance for their homes and encouraged "white flight" out of East Palo Alto so that realtors could encourage Black residents to buy homes there.
"The Ordinance perpetuates this historic exclusion and violates the constitutional rights of individuals who are not Palo Alto residents," the suit states. "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."
William S. Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU of Northern California, said in a statement that the city "cannot threaten to arrest and fine people who want to enjoy a public space."
"Palo Alto's exclusion of its neighbors violates the civil rights of communities who too often still find those rights under threat: Black and brown communities."