PALO ALTO — The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a lawsuit Tuesday to compel the city to remove what it calls an “unconstitutional residents-only restriction” at the exclusive Foothills Park.
The lawsuit comes about two months after activists resurrected a decades-long fight over the 1,400-acre park, a massive nature preserve off Page Mill road believed to be the only publicly-owned park in California that excludes nonresidents unless they’re guests accompanied by Palo Altans.
Brought on behalf of the NAACP of Silicon Valley and ten individual plaintiffs from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and neighboring Peninsula communities, the suit alleges that the restrictive ordinance is a vestige of a “well-documented history of racial discrimination” which has kept brown and Black people out under threat of jail time and a hefty fine.
“Well into the middle of the 20th century, government agencies, lending institutions, relators’ associations, and private individuals combined to prevent Black Americans from residing or purchasing homes in Palo Alto,” the ACLU wrote in a statement. “As a consequence of this discrimination, just 1.6 percent of residents in Palo Alto today are Black, a far lower proportion than in neighboring communities.”
The lawsuit was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court and asserts that the Palo Alto ordinance violates both the US and California Constitutions because “it infringes on the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights of freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.” The suit also seeks to prohibit the city from “wasteful and unlawful” spending of public funds to enforce the ordinance, which carries with it a misdemeanor charge and potential fines.
Palo Alto city officials did not return a request for comment as of Tuesday morning. In August, the city council approved a pilot program that would allow some residents to buy passes and enter the pristine preserve.
The decades-long debate has reared its head again this year following widespread nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality.
Since June, activists and protestors have marched up and down the main path toward the park and have painted the word “desegregate” at the entrance several times. A video posted on Twitter July 6 shows a park ranger pressure-washing the message off of the pavement.
The controversy around the restrictive park also lead to the resignation of parks commissioner Ryan McCauley. Several local officials and current congresswomen Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo and Zoe Lofgren D-San Jose, have also signed on to a petition urging the city council to repeal the ordinance.
Plaintiff Gwen Gasque, who owns the famed Letter Perfect stationery store on University Avenue, said in a statement that she finds the residents-only restriction offensive.
“Even though I run a business in Palo Alto and have for many years paid taxes that fund the park, I cannot enter it,” she said. Laura Martinez, a former Mayor of East Palo Alto who is also a plaintiff, felt similarly.
“I attended schools in Palo Alto Unified School District for many years, I currently work and serve as a volunteer in nonprofit organizations in Palo Alto and have spent much of my career in public service, yet I am barred from entering the public grounds of Foothills Park,” Martinez said.
Another plaintiff, former council member and retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge LaDoris Cordell, said she “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.” Cordell has long been vocal about her disdain for the “exclusionary” ordinance and has been at the forefront of recent efforts to dispense of it.
“The practice of blocking non-residents from Foothills Park perpetuates inequity, and it must end,” Cordell added.
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